London Letter

London Letter

Beverley Baxter March 15 1954
London Letter

London Letter

Beverley Baxter March 15 1954

London Letter

What Can Save The Theatre?

Beverley Baxter

IT MAY NOT BE so recorded in history but at the present time there is a civil war raging in Britain. Fortunately it is not a war of slaughter and violent death but there are heavy casualties just the same.

The struggle is a three-cornered one in which allies are apt to fire on each other. The aggressor is television—the allies are the living theatre and the cinema. And if anyone doubts that General Sherman was right when he said that war was hell, let him talk first to the hard-pressed garrisons of the living theatre.

In the current Rodgers and Hammerstein hit on Broadway, Me and Juliet, there is a song which has this as its refrain:

The theatre is dying The theatre is dying The theatre is practically dead.

Capacity audiences loudly applaud the number, and if any further encouragement were needed Doctor Hammerstein and Doctor Rodgers can look across the road where The King and I is still packed out.

The theatre has been dying for centuries but its demise is always postponed by the arrival at the bedside of a Shakespeare, an Irving, a Barrymore, a Shaw or a Gilbert complete with Sullivan.

When the first flicker pictures appeared the living theatre shook almost as violently as the characters on the screen. Here was a form of entertainment which could not only undersell the theatre but bring outstanding world stars to your neighborhood. Thus the people in

the suburbs would no longer converge on the centre but take their pleasures nearer home.

However, the theatre still had a monopoly on the human voice whereas the twittering shadows on the screen could make no sound at all. So the theatre survived round one.

Then came the “talkies.” I can remember going to the first showing of this miracle in London.

Most of the film was still silent but there was a sequence where AÍ Jolson not only spoke but sang.

“It will hurt the silent film,” was the general verdict, “but on the other hand this bastard product,

although it will not satisfy the ear, will kill the art of mime on which films are based.” Whereupon the scientists continued to improve matters until the silent film stole away into an obscurity from which it would never emerge again, and the talkies were in complete control.

At that point the knees of the theatrical magnates knocked so hard together that they sounded like coconuts in a gale. Sound had been added satisfactorily to sight in the cinema! What could be done but adapt Horatio’s words and say: “Good night sweet Theatre, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

However, the theatre did not die, except in the suburbs and the small towns. But let there be no mistake about it, the kingdom of the theatre was shrinking and the process could never be reversed. More and more it centred in the metropolis and left the lesser cities to the picture palaces that showed the same array of stars as in New York and London.

When I was a young fellow in Toronto we had five theatres the Princess, Toronto Opera House, Royal Alexandra, Shea’s and a burlesque house called, I think, the Star or the Gaiety or both. At the Princess or the Royal Alex I saw Bernhardt, Forbes Robertson and Robert Loraine while my brain was fired with the flaming genius of Shakespeare, the stimulus of Shaw and the perfumed wit of Oscar Wilde. But those were the years of darkness before Hollywood had extended its frontiers of culture.

Now the Royal Alexandra remains alone in its glory save for some brave attempts at neighborhood repertory theatres. But not even the setting up of a Stratford Theatre in Ontario to challenge the supremacy of the Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon can alter the fact that in Canada the theatre has shrunk like a raisin from its pre-cinema days.

However, conquerors beget conquerors and the kingdom of the cinema was eventually challenged by television. What price glory now? The film which had taken so much away from the theatre was going to be faced with a screen in your own home. No wonder Louis B. Mayer and his fellow magnates muttered, “Night or Blücher!” But in their hearts they did not believe that either could save them.

I have already written in Maclean’s about the struggle in Britain to impose commercially sponsored programs on TV, and I do not intend to discuss that issue again until we have a chance to study it in action. But already we can see that, contrary to every prognostication, it is the poor old live theatre which is taking it on the chin rather than the cinema.

When I returned from Canada last autumn I arranged with my old friend Lord Beaverbrook to reduce my dramatic criticism to something like a watching brief because it was so difficult to get away from the House of Commons in the evenings. Instead I would take on the cinema because the new films are shown to critics in the morning.

He Descends To Cinema

To me it was a compromise forced by the duality of my life and, in my heart,

I felt it to be a descent to a lower plane. For a long period 1 had not gone more than half a dozen times a year to the cinema, and there was no doubt in my mind that the live theatre was far superior because a dramatist could write for a limited intellectual public at one theatre whereas the film must sprawl itself over the minds of the ignorant, the young, the morons (as well as the nice people in their millions) and must be aimed at the level of mass intelligence.

That was five months ago. Today 1 am astonished at the vitality of the cinema. I am amazed at the excellence of the acting, production and writing. Certainly there are poor pictures which are an insult to human taste but they a'*e few in number.

One of the first films I had to see as a critic was Julius Caesar. This, of course, was always the best gangster play ever written and it is astonishing that it took the picture makers so long to recognize that elemental truth. But how splendidly Hollywood did its job!

Then there was From Here to Eternity, which many of us felt should

r.i:\e¡lave been made because of the terrible arraignment of the morals and discipline of the American soldier—but how passionately and brilliantly the story was conveyed on the screen !

And since we can never leave out the ladies I must commend the patience of Hollywood for putting Marilyn Monroe into so many pictures that finally, in How to Marry a Millionaire, she showed that she could act!

Nor were the British studios lagging behind. Malta Story was not as good as The Cruel Sea but it had enormous strength. Gilbert and Sullivan had a

poorioii script but the music was weil done. The fact is that the British picture no longer begs for its place on the screen. We have better actors here than in Hollywood and we have thrown aside the inferiority complex of the early years of competition.

So now we come back to our argument. Against the prophecies of all the soothsayers it is not the cinema that is suffering most from the onslaught of television. I repeat that unhappily it is the live theatre which is bleeding alarmingly from its wounds.

The cinema can command the sea.

the skies, the town ;.¿.u t e tiesert for its settings to a story. The live theatre can only offer a couple of changes of scene at most, and usually there is no change at all. Therefore television can approximate the stage of the normal theatre.

What is more, the televiewers in their homes occupy the best seats from which they can see and hear everything clearly. They do not have to climb to the gallery and gaze at the distant stage or strain their ears for the last two or three words of every sentence.

They do not have to pay sixpence or a shilling for a tiny program which informs them that the part of Miss Smith is played by Miss Snooks, and that the action takes place in the living room of Sir Alfred Stuffshirt’s country house near Guildford.

Strangely enough, comedies do not appear to the same advantage on television as serious and especially intimate drama. Comedy needs the laughter of an audience which cannot be supplied by two or three people in a room. Wit, however, is another thing. Wit goes to the mind whereas humor goes to the abdomen and earns the reward of the belly laugh. Therefore broad comedy usually fails on television unless there is a stooge studio audience to do the laughing for you. On the other hand wit will earn the appraising chuckle because it is individualistic in its appeal.

It will be a sad day in the life of England if the theatre dwindles to a condition where it can only offer musicals imported from Broadway, or homemade plays that involve the minimum of production costs.

In a few minutes I must put down my pen because I am going to a reception to celebrate the eightieth birthday of Somerset Maugham. He has come to London from his home in the south of France because he wants to spend his birthday in the great town where he worked as a young doctor in the East End and then wrote the stories and plays which Jarought him wealth and immortality.

An Exasperating Period

Those were astonishing days in the London theatre after the 1914 war. Kipling was still alive and Barrie was enjoying a golden sunset in the theatre. Arnold Bennett was faltering brilliantly as a playwright but there was a fine intelligence even in his failures. Galsworthy was half succeeding in his attempt to use the theatre as a medium for awakening the sluggish social conscience of the nation. An impudent young rascal called Noel Coward was pestering managements to put on any one of the many plays which he had written. Freddie Lonsdale had struck gold with his comedies that satirized and glamorized the smart set at the same time.

Yet, believe it or not, when Bernard Shaw—second only to Shakespeare in musicianship of words—gave London his new play Heartbreak House the critics (and the public) ridiculed it as the dodderings of an old man. It was a thrilling but exasperating period.

This evening when we congratulate Maugham at his party I hope that Coward and perhaps Lonsdale will be there. But Galsworthy, Shaw, Bennett and Drinkwater (who wrote Abraham Lincoln), Barrie and the others have been gathered to their fathers.

The theatre is a precious thing. If there had been no such invention as a printing press the theatre would not only be the custodian of our speech and manners, but would tell our continuing story as a people through the centuries.

Today the shadow of television is deep upon the living theatre. Shakespeare will hold his own and the latest success from Broadway will get a hearing; London will contrive to keep its theatres open but in the smaller provincial cities the struggle will be grim indeed.

Somerset Maugham may feel that the weight of years is heavy upon him, but he was lucky that his genius came to full tide in a period when the London theatre was vibrant, a new play was an event, and television was a dream in a madman’s head. if