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LITERARY DRAMA ON THE MODERN STAGE 123
tries that great drama, when fitly represented in the theatre, offers the rank and file of a nation recreation which brings with it moral, intellectual, and spiritual advantage.
The first question to consider is whether in England the existing theatrical agencies promote for the general good the genuine interests of dramatic art. Do existing theatrical agencies secure for the nation all the beneficial influence that is derivable from the truly competent form of drama? If they do this sufficiently, it is otiose and impertinent to entertain the notion of creating any new theatrical agency.
Theatrical agencies of the existing type have never ignored the literary drama altogether. Among actor-managers of the past generation, Sir Henry Irving devoted his high ability to the interpretation of many species of literary drama-from that by Shakespeare to that by Tennyson. At leading theatres in London there have been produced in the last few years poetic dramas written in blank verse on themes drawn from such supreme examples of the world's literature as Homer's Odyssey and Dante's Inferno. Signs have not been wanting of public anxiety to acknowledge with generosity these and other serious endeavours in poetic drama, whatever their precise degree of excellence. But such premisses warrant no very large conclusion. Two or three swallows do not make a summer. The literary drama is only welcomed to the London stage at uncertain intervals; most of its life is passed in the wilderness.
The recognition that is given in England to literary or poetic drama, alike of the past and present, is chiefly notable for its irregularity. The circumstance may be accounted for in various ways. It is best explained by the fact that England is the only country in Europe in which theatrical enterprise is wholly and exclusively organised on a capitalist basis. No theatre in England is worked to-day on any but the capitalist principle. Artistic aspiration may be well alive in the theatrical profession, but the custom and circumstance of capital, the calls of the counting-house, hamper the theatrical artist's freedom of action. The methods imposed are dictated too exclusively by the mercantile spirit.
Many illustrations could be given of the unceasing conflict which capitalist methods wage with artistic methods. One is sufficient. The commercially capitalised theatre is bound hand and foot to the system of long runs. In no theatres of the first class outside London and New York is the system known, and even here and in New York it is of comparatively recent origin. But Londoners have grown so accustomed to the system that they overlook the havoc which it works on the theatre as a home of art. Both actor and playgoer suffer signal injury from its effects. It limits the range of drama which is available at our great theatres to the rank and file of mankind. Especially serious is the danger to which the unchangeable programme exposes histrionic capacity and histrionic intelligence. The actor is not encouraged to widen his knowledge of the drama. His faculties are blunted by the narrow monotony of his experience. Yet the capitalised conditions of theatrical enterprise, which are in
vogue in London and New York, seem to render long runs imperative. The system of long runs is peculiar to English-speaking countries, where alone theatrical enterprise is altogether under the sway of capital. It is specifically prohibited in the national or municipal theatre of every great foreign city, where the interests of dramatic art enjoy foremost consideration.
The artistic aspiration of the actor-manager may be set on the opposite side of the account. Although the actor-manager belongs to the ranks of the capitalists (whether he be one himself or dependent on one), yet when he exercises supreme control of his playhouse, and is moved by artistic feeling, he may check many of the evils that spring from capitalist domination. He can partially neutralise the hampering effect on dramatic art of the merely commercial application of capital to theatrical enterprise.
The actor-manager system is liable to impede the progress of dramatic art through defects of its own, but its most characteristic defects are not tarred with the capitalist brush. The actor-manager is prone to over-estimate the range of his histrionic power. He tends to claim of right the first place in the cast of every piece which he produces. He will consequently at times fill a rôle for which his powers unsuit him. If he be wise enough to avoid that error, he may imperil the interests of dramatic art in another fashion; he may neglect pieces, despite their artistic value, in which he knows the foremost part to be outside his scope. The actormanager has sometimes undertaken a secondary rôle. But then it often happens, not necessarily by his deliberate endeavour, but by the mere force and
popularity of his name among the frequenters of his playhouse, that there is focussed on his secondary part an attention that it does not intrinsically merit, with the result that the artistic perspective of the play is injured. A primary law of dramatic art deprecates the constant preponderance of one actor in a company. The highest attainable level of excellence in all the members is the true artistic aim.
The dangers inherent in the "star" principle of the actor-manager system may be frankly admitted, but at the same time one should recognise the system's possible advantages. An actor-manager does not usually arrive at his position until his career is well advanced and he has proved his histrionic capacity. Versatility commonly distinguishes him, and he is able to fill a long series of leading rôles without violating artistic propriety. At any rate, the actor-manager who resolutely cherishes respect for art can do much to temper the corrupting influences of commercial capitalism in the theatrical world.
It is probably the less needful to scrutinise closely the theoretic merits or demerits of the actormanager system, because the dominant principle of current theatrical enterprise in London and America renders most precarious the future existence of that system. The actor-manager seems, at any rate, threatened in London by a new and irresistible tide of capitalist energy. Six or seven leading theatres in London have recently been brought under the control of an American capitalist who does not pretend to any but mercantile inspiration. The American capitalist's first and last aim is naturally to secure the highest possible remuneration for his
THE AMERICAN CAPITALIST
invested capital. He is catholic-minded, and has no objection to artistic drama, provided he can draw substantial profit from it. Material interests alone have any real meaning for him. If he serve the interests of art by producing an artistic play, he serves art by accident and unconsciously: his object is to benefit his exchequer. His philosophy is unmitigated utilitarianism. “The greatest pleasure for the greatest number" is his motto. The pleasure that carries farthest and brings round him the largest paying audiences is his ideal stock-intrade. Obviously pleasure either of the frivolous or of the spectacular kind attracts the greatest number of customers to his emporium. It is consequently pleasure of this spectacular or frivolous kind which he habitually endeavours to provide. It is Quixotic to anticipate much diminution in the supply and demand of either frivolity or spectacle, both of which may furnish quite innocuous pleasure. But each is the antithesis of dramatic art; and whatever view one holds of the methods of the American capitalist, it is irrational to look to him for the intelligent promotion of dramatic art.
From the artistic point of view the modern system of theatrical enterprise thus seems capable of improvement. If it be incapable of general improvement, it is at least capable of having a better example set it than current modes can be reckoned on to offer. The latter are not likely to be displaced. All that can be attempted is to create a new model at their side. What is sought by the advocates of a municipal theatre is an institution