Vanity Fair, May 1915
BAD TIMES FOR THEATREGOERS
Hard Work and No Pay the New Rule for Audiences
By P. G. Wodehouse
THERE was something wrong with George Cohan’s “Hello, Broadway,” which has just closed a successful run in New York. We know that it played to capacity and that Mr. Cohan has never yet made a mistaken diagnosis of what the public wants, but somehow, gazing into the crystal, we seem to see a chilling frost creeping in on such reviews as this. It will, we prophesy, arrive quite suddenly, like an April shower, and all such reviews will die the death. And the reason for our prognostication is that this curious form of production, which is half a dramatic nightmare and half a jolly evening at the Lambs’ Club, tries the audience altogether too much. It relies for success too largely on the intelligence and information of the people of this fair city.
If you have ever had to listen to a long anecdote about some total stranger,—an anecdote which concludes with the words: “But of course you have to know dear old Smith (or Jones) to appreciate the real fun of the thing”; if you have ever been in the company of two men whose conversation consists principally of private jokes and catch-phrases and allusions delightful to themselves but unintelligible to the uninitiated; then you have experienced the sensations which I obtained from “Hello, Broadway.” Regular first-nighters reveled in it; Diamond Jim Brady probably went every evening and every matinée; but the great heart of the public is likely to remain untouched, for of all the technical pieces ever presented on our Main Street this was the most technical. For the benefit of other than New York readers I may explain that it consists entirely of burlesques of other productions, interspersed with jocular references by Mr. Cohan and Mr. Collier to the more intimate portions of their personal histories.
THE world knows little of its greatest men, and it is possible that the general public is not so closely in touch with the lives of Mr. Cohan and Mr. Collier as they themselves are.
Burlesque, like Worcestershire Sauce, is a condiment, not a fluid. Too much of it is more than enough. In “Hello, Broadway” Mr. Cohan has poured it out unsparingly. There is not a moment from the rise of the curtain to the fall thereof when something or somebody theatrical is not being burlesqued, and in time the victim becomes conscious of a sense of revolt.
There are two kinds of révue. There is the révue which, like “Watch Your Step,” is simply classified under that name because there is nothing else which you can call it; and there is the révue which aims at the Parisian ideal and tries to be an amusing commentary on, and travesty of, the world in which we live. Mr. Cohan has gone on the assumption that the world in which we live contains no other feature except the theatre, and it is for this reason that we anticipate the sudden blighting frost on comedies like unto it.
The fatal drawback to a production which stands or falls by burlesquing other productions is that the audience has to be familiar with the pieces burlesqued. In other words, it can only succeed by means of a constant supply of successes at other theatres. And most theatres seem to have given up the habit of producing successes.
The first edition of “Hello, Broadway” is well enough. But what of the future? The majority of the plays travestied have ceased to be. The burlesques in “Hello, Broadway,” at the Astor Theatre were those of “It Pays To Advertise,” “The Song of Songs,” “The Miracle Man,” “Innocent,” “The Phantom Rival,” “My Lady’s Dress,” “Mr. Wu,” “Pygmalion,” “Outcast,” and “On Trial,”—a list which even now includes seven corpses out of a possible ten. A play which has ceased to run on Broadway is a play which Broadway has totally forgotten. Already the greater part of Mr. Cohan’s révue has merely an archaeological interest. Where was the material for more burlesque to come from? It was probably this thought which gave Mr. Cohan the worried and anxious look which he wore most of the time that he was on the stage. Now and then he smiled faintly. That is when the idea crossed his mind that maybe he could work in a skit on that show over at the What’s-its-name Theatre. The smile died away as he realized that they were saying at the Lambs’ before dinner that the notice at the What’s-its-name had just gone up.
We are sorry for Mr. Cohan’s troubles, but there is a certain consolation in them for us. “Hello, Broadway” was just another attempt to make the audience do most of the work, and these are tough times for audiences since actors began to get the idea that people came to a theatre to help run the show instead of merely to sit and watch it.
THE modern fashion of harrying the audience seems to us the exact equivalent of the pleasant Teutonic practice of torpedoing neutral merchant-vessels. Audiences used to have the comfortable feeling that they were non-combatants and as such safe from molestation. The orchestra might writhe beneath the drolleries of the comedians,—but not they. Songs might have very catchy refrains, but they would be sung exclusively by those paid to sing them. The chorus might be vivacious and energetic, but it would confine its energy and vivacity to the other side of the footlights.
All that peaceful period has passed.
By imperceptible degrees the barriers between stage and house have been broken down, until now, if an audience is not prepared to work as if it were earning a large salary, it might just as well stop away. It has to join in choruses, answer questions, catch footballs and balloons, and throw them back on the stage, submit to be trodden on by perambulating show-girls, sit up at nights studying the biographies of actors, and, if rash enough to leave before the end of the performance, to act as the target for satirical observations from whichever of the company happens to see them. It requires an alert mind, much physical and spiritual endurance, and a highly specialized education to make a man a theatre-goer nowadays. There should be, and probably soon will be, correspondence schools to equip people for paying two dollars at theatrical box-offices.
A FEATURE of the Winter Garden’s latest production is a song where the “personnel of the chorus” roam at will about the house: and we see by th’ papers, as Mr. Dooley would say, that a man in Washington is bringing an action for damages because he was recently forcibly kissed by a blithe young show-girl, sicked onto him by a management which was under the impression that people pay for seats at a theatre to join in the performance.
This sort of thing strikes at the very root of an audience’s inalienable rights. People go to the sort of dramas in which this sort of thing happens merely in order to rest peacefully, in a padded seat and enjoy a sort of cosy, well-filled, after-dinner kind of contentment.
Musical productions always used to be a rather expensive but satisfactory form of digestive. How can a man digest properly if he is suddenly asked a question from the stage or if at any moment he may have to climb onto the roof to avoid the personnel of the chorus? In “Hello, Broadway” Mr. Cohan came down to the footlights and, fixing the audience with a piercing eye, said: “You do like to be fooled, don’t you? Tell me, you do like to be fooled?” Well, you don’t say anything, of course. Who does willingly speak aloud in a theatre? But the shock of being spoken to and expected to reply administers a jolt from which you have only just recovered when Miss Louise Dresser urges you in an authoritative manner to sing the refrain of one of her songs. And while you are in the disturbed and uneasy condition engendered by these two occurrences, on come Messrs. Cohan and Collier and begin to chat about their private affairs.
By this time you are in such a state of stage-fright that all hope of peaceful enjoyment is out of the question. You are in momentary fear that some one on the stage will address you by name and ask if you would rather be a bigger fool than you look or look a bigger fool than you are. Do you remember how you felt when you were a boy and the conjurer made you step onto the platform and began taking things out of your hair? “Hello, Broadway” and similar productions revive that feeling.
Something will soon have to be done about this state of things. It is demoralizing audiences, driving them to such excesses as stopping at home at night or rushing to problem plays.
AT the moment of going to press, it flashes upon us that this is the real reason why the moving-pictures are doing such a tremendous business. Whatever you may say against films, at least they do not talk to you, or ask you to sing, or come prowling about the house kissing you. And it is not necessary for you to have seen all the other films in existence in order to appreciate their inner meaning.
We will not have our brains strained, we audiences.
We come to the theatre to sleep, and we mean to do it.