[Editor’s Note: Thanks to Tony Ring for providing a copy of this item.]
IT seems to be universally admitted that times are bad on the London stage, and panic-stricken managers, faced with the vision of having to pawn their fur coats and go back to work, are trying to find some method whereby the public can be induced to turn out at night and pay money for the privilege of sitting in an uncomfortable seat with a good view of a marble pillar.
A Novel Suggestion
One solution that has been suggested is that the quality of the plays presented should be made higher. According to some thinkers, people have given up going to the theatre because they are tired of seeing bad plays. The absurdity of this hypothesis may be proved by a glance at the theatrical advertisements, which show that each play produced is the finest of its kind that has ever been seen.
The only way of filling the theatres—short of conscription of audiences—seems to me to be the mileage system in vogue on American railways. It has been in existence there for some time, and works admirably. American railways recognise that the purest of pleasures must cloy, so, instead of forcing their patrons to travel the entire distance of a journey or not travel at all, they say, in effect: “Look here, you like travelling, and I like having you travel, but it does get tedious after a while, doesn’t it? Well, I’ll tell you what we’ll do. You pay me so much, and then you can come and travel in instalments whenever you feel inclined, till you’ve used up your mileage book, and then you can buy another and start again.” The system could easily be extended to the theatres.
Where The Fault Lies
What is really the trouble with the London theatre is that it has reached such a pitch of fascination that the ordinary citizen is not equal to a sustained orgy of it. The mixture is too rich. After about half an hour the pleasure becomes too delirious, and he wishes that he might be elsewhere. But he has paid his twelve (or sixteen) and six, and his commercial mind compels him to sit the thing out, and not let the management get ahead of him by seven bob or so of his hard-earned. The result is that he gets surfeited with the smashing excellence of the play, and next time, when he has a few shillings to spare, he adds them to his little savings in the toy bank, and the most stupendous hit London has seen for a hundred and eleven years has to be withdrawn after a week’s run.
But suppose he had a mileage ticket? What then? Why, as soon as the superb technique and sparkling dialogue gave him that feeling of complete satiety, out he would rush. A few nights at home would enable him to recuperate, and back he would come to enjoy another twenty minutes or so of the intoxicating pleasure.
The ideal arrangement, of course, would be if the various managements could come to some sort of understanding and consent to a species of pooling arrangement. If this could be done, the mileage ticket would be good for any theatre and at any time. How frequently it has happened that, in the middle of one of those tense dramas with strong men in them, you have said to yourself, “After all, there is nothing like musical comedy!” And does it not generally happen that, just as the girls come on in bathing-dresses to join in the “Dear Old Deauville” number, you muse wistfully, “If I get out of this alive, me for the legitimate!”
That Third Act!
The best rest is change of work. There is no work which can compare in its exhausting quality with the labour of watching a modern play. To be able to switch from one theatre to another in the middle of a performance would be the saving of playgoers. One advantage of the system would be that nobody would ever be obliged to see the last act. The flaw in most plays is that the public demands a big situation at the end of the last act but one. It is easy for the dramatist to cook up that big situation, but it is apparently impossible for him ever to unscramble it in the last act. Under the mileage system the audience would leave in a body, thrilled by the second act curtain, and there would not have to be a third act at all. You would hear them chattering happily in the lobby, wondering how it all came out in the end. The management might even offer a small prize for the best solution.
The Theatre Crawl
In its operation the mileage system would be simplicity itself. The theatregoer would purchase from a central office a ticket for so many hours at the theatre. One night he would stroll into a musical comedy. His ticket would be punched at the door. Finding, after the opening chorus, that the heroine, wishing to be loved for herself alone, is going to change dresses with her maid, he promptly leaves. The attendant punches his ticket again, to show to the attendant at the next theatre that the victim has used up seven minutes of his purchased time. In this way, if the man still lives, his ticket is eventually exhausted.
In the present condition of the London stage a fastidious man might make a ten-hour ticket last out an entire season.
An adaptation of “Commuting at the Theatre” from Vanity Fair, January 1915.