« ZurückWeiter »
lessons as to the defects inherent in all narrow sectional effort, however enthusiastically inspired. But at the same time they testify to a desire to introduce into the current theatrical system more literary and artistic principles than are at present habitual to it. They point to the presence of a zeal-often, it may be, misdirected-for change or reform.
The experiment of Mr Benson points more effectively in the same direction. A public-spirited champion of Shakespeare and the classical drama, he has maintained his hold in the chief cities of Ireland, Scotland, and the English provinces for a generation. Although for reasons that are not hard to seek, he has failed to establish his position in London, Mr Benson's methods of work have enabled him to render conspicuous service to the London stage in a manner which is likely to facilitate reform. For many years he has supplied the leading London theatres with a succession of trained actors and actresses. Graduates in Mr Benson's school can hardly fail to co-operate willingly in any reform of theatrical enterprise, which is calculated to develop the artistic capacities of the stage.
Other circumstances are no less promising. The justice of the cry for the due safeguarding of the country's dramatic art by means of publicly-organised effort has been repeatedly acknowledged of late by men of experience alike in dramatic and public affairs. In 1898 a petition was presented to the London County Council requesting that body to found and endow a permanent opera-house "in order to promote the musical interest and refinement of the public and the advancement of the art of music." The petition bore the signatures of two hundred
THE TREND OF PUBLIC OPINION
leaders of public opinion, including the chief members of the dramatic profession. In this important document, particulars were given of the manner in which the State or the municipality aided theatres in France, Germany, Austria, and other countries of Europe. It was shown that in France twelve typically efficient theatres received from public bodies an annual subsidy amounting in the aggregate to £130,000.
The wording of the petition and the arguments employed by the petitioners were applicable to drama as well as to opera. In fact the case was put in a way which was more favourable to the pretensions of drama than to those of opera. One argument which always tells against the establishment of a publicly-subsidised opera-house in London does not affect the establishment of a publicly-subsidised theatre. Opera is an exotic in England; drama is a native product, and has exerted in the past a wider influence and has attracted a wider sympathy than Italian or German music.
The London County Council, after careful inquiry, gave the scheme of 1898 benevolent encouragement. Hope was held out that a site for either a theatre or an opera-house, might be reserved "in connection with one of the contemplated central improvements of London." Nothing in the recent history of the London County Council gives ground for doubting that it will be prepared to give practical effect to a thoroughly matured scheme.
Within the Council the principle of the municipal theatre has found powerful advocacy. Mr John Burns, who is not merely the spokesman of the working classes, but is a representative of earnest
minded students of good literature, has supported the principle with generous enthusiasm. The intelligent artisans of London applaud his attitude. The London Trades Council passed resolutions in the autumn of 1901 recommending the erection of a theatre by the London County Council, "so that a higher standard of dramatic art might be encouraged and made more accessible to the wage-earning classes as is the case in the State and municipal theatres in the principal cities on the Continent." The gist of the argument could hardly be put more plainly.
Of those who have written recently in favour of the scheme of a municipal theatre many speak with the authority of exceptional experience. The actor Mr John Coleman, one of the last survivors of Phelps's company at Sadler's Wells Theatre, argued with cogency, shortly before his death in 1903, that the national credit owed it to itself to renew Phelps's experiment of the middle of last century; public intervention was imperative, seeing that no other means were forthcoming. The late Sir Henry Irving in his closing years announced his conviction that a municipal theatre could alone keep the classical and the poetic drama fully alive in the theatres. The dramatic critic, Mr William Archer, has brought his expert knowledge of dramatic organisation at home and abroad to the aid of the agitation. Various proposals -unhappily of too vague and unauthoritative a kind to guarantee a satisfactory reception-have been made from time to time to raise a fund to build a national theatre, and to run it for five years on a public subsidy of £10,000 a year.
The advocates of the municipalising principle have worked for the most part in isolation. Such
independence tends to dissipate rather than to conserve energy. A consolidating impulse has been sorely needed. But the variety of the points of views from which the subject has been independently approached renders the less disputable the genuine width of public interest in the question.
The argument that it is contrary to public policy, or that it is opposed to the duty of the State or municipality, to provide for the people's enlightened amusement, is not formidable. The State and the municipality have long treated such work as part of their daily functions, whatever the arguments that have been urged against it. The State, in partnership with local authorities, educates the people, whether they like it or no. The municipalities of London and other great towns provide the people, outside the theatre, with almost every opportunity of enlightenment and enlightened amusement. In London there are 150 free libraries, which are mainly occupied in providing the ratepayers with the opportunities of reading fiction-recreation which is not always very enlightened. The County Council of London furnishes bands of music to play in the parks, at an expenditure of some £6000 a year. Most of our great cities supply, in addition, municipal picture galleries, in which the citizens take pride, and to which in their corporate capacity they contribute large sums of money. The municipal theatre is the natural complement of the municipal library, the municipal musical entertainment, and the municipal art gallery.
Of the practicability of a municipal theatre ample evidence is at hand. Foreign experience convincingly justifies the municipal mode of theatrical enterprise. Every great town in France, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland has its municipal theatre. In Paris there are three, in addition to four theatres which are subsidised by the State. It is estimated that there are seventy municipal theatres in the German-speaking countries of Europe, apart from twenty-seven State theatres. At the same time, it should be noted that in the French and German capitals there are, at the side of the State and municipal playhouses, numerous theatres which are run on ordinary commercial lines. The prosperity of these houses is in no way checked by the contiguity of theatrical enterprise of State or municipality.
All municipal theatres on the continent of Europe pursue the same aims. They strive to supply the citizens with true artistic drama continuously, and to reduce the cost of admission to the playhouse to the lowest possible terms. But the working details of the foreign municipal theatres differ widely in individual cases, and a municipality which contemplates a first theatrical experiment is offered a large choice of method. In some places the municipality acts with regal munificence, and directly assumes the largest possible responsibilities. It provides the site, erects the theatre, and allots a substantial subsidy to its maintenance. The manager is a municipal officer, and the municipal theatre fills in the social life of the town as imposing a place as the town-hall, cathedral, or university.