Vanity Fair, December 1922
Drawbacks of the Drama in England
A Comparison of the British with the American Theatre by an Eminent Specialist in Both
By P. G. WODEHOUSE
TO judge by contemporary reports, the drama in England has always been in a bad way. It is on record that Shakespeare, meeting Burbage in the Mermaid Tavern on the morning after the production of Hamlet and remarking not without a certain complacency that maybe the show hadn’t knocked ’em for a goal last night and had he, Burbage, ever seen anything like the way the second act went, was greeted with the sour reply: “The drama in this bally country is on the blink, I’ll tell the world. Ere Phoebus his chariot was high in the sky I was round at the box-office and if ever I saw anything rottener than the advance-booking, beshrew me!”
Similar slams in like circumstances were administered to Congreve, Wycherly, Oliver Goldsmith, and Sheridan. There has always been something wrong with the theatre in England, and nowadays matters seem to have reached a height or a pitch or a climax, or whatever it is that matters do reach. It is high time that somebody made a few helpful suggestions, and it is a rare bit of luck that I happened to be around. I am the doctor.
I walk down Broadway, and what happens? First, I find myself bestowing a kindly smile on Abe Erlanger, then a cheery nod on Lee Shubert. At Forty-Fifth Street I slap Charles B. Dillingham on the back, at Forty-Fourth I prod Comstock and Gest in the lower ribs, and at Forty-Third, I ask Sam Harris how’s the boy. By the time I have passed out of the theatre zone I have probably encountered a score of regular practising managers. All very interesting, you say, and frightfully jolly for me, but what has it to do with drama in England? I’m glad you asked me just that question. The point is that what England needs to put it right theatrically is a platoon or covey of genuine, established, working managers, with definite offices where the young playwright can get at them when he wants them—men who make a habit of producing a certain number of plays every season and who consequently have to be supplied with those plays by someone.
A Little Fixing
IN New York, when I have written my piece, I go to a manager and say: “I have here a three-act comedy full of human interest and not lacking in suspense, punch, and poignant love-motive. I wrote it with an eye to Jane Cowl, but with a little fixing here and there it could be worked into a vehicle for Lionel Barrymore or Eddie Cantor. How about it?” “Fine,” says the manager, “I want something for the Blank Theatre quick. I’ve got Professor Appleby’s Performing Seals under contract. If you can alter it to fit them, I’ll start rehearsals tomorrow.” “Right,” I say, and go off and do it. But what happens in England? I have to hang about trying to collect a syndicate, and when I have got the syndicate I have to find a theatre, and when I have found a theatre the leading member of the syndicate goes bankrupt and I have to start all over again. This is not the way to encourage young talent. I will go further. It is not the way to encourage old talent or, for that matter, middle-aged talent either. Taking it by and large, it doesn’t do talent a darn bit of good from start to finish.
The result is that there are no new playwrights in England and no prospect of any, whereas in New York you simply cannot fling a brick in any central thoroughfare without winging somebody in a soft hat and tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles with a couple of crook plays in his pocket. It is estimated that if all the young playwrights in New York were placed end to end they would reach from Yonkers to within a foot or two of the Battery.
BUT, even given an adequate supply of managers, it is doubtful if prosperity would return to the English theatre without other American adjuncts. Chief among these is Ollie Fishbein of Minneapolis, with whose name I couple that of Isidore Grucinsky of Toledo. You may not have heard of these men, but you have certainly seen them. They are Buyers, and with a million more of their species they come flocking to New York just at those times of the year when the theatre can do with a million or so additional seat-purchasers. Ollie, Isidore, and the rest come to New York with one main idea in their heads, and that is to see as many shows as they can fit in before they have to return to the darkness whence they emerged. Money is nothing to them. If they charged five dollars fifty for a view of a pillar and the corner of the proscenium arch, what of it? They call it Expenses.
Now, in London, as far as I have been able to ascertain, there are no Buyers. If there are, they are very different-looking fauna and have thus escaped my observation. The result is that the drama is always sagging. Just at that moment when your New York manager, sighting the mob approaching over the sky-line, puts up his prices, the London manager has to put up his notice. For, as with others of God’s humbler creatures, it is fine weather that brings the Buyers out, and a spell of fine weather is ordinarily death to the drama. On the next cargo-boat that leaves Manhattan, therefore, ship to England not only an assortment of managers but an adequate supply of Buyers. Then things will really begin to look up.
England also needs very badly a couple of cities of the size of Boston and Chicago, to enable London to get an occasional rest from its leading actors. In England an actor who has succeeded in establishing himself in the metropolis stays there for the rest of his life, and nothing can shift him. Here in America, when one is confronted with the old favourites, one sets one’s teeth and mutters: “Courage! It will be all right after this season for a year at least, for he will be going off to play in Boston and Chicago.” In London there is no such relief. Year after year you know that you are going to see the same old faces with which you have shaken hands since a boy.
We are getting on. Already we have thrown out three good suggestions which cannot fail to boost the drama in England at least fifty per cent. We have pointed the way by which playwrights may be developed and audiences created in the slack times of the year. But, even with all this, the situation cannot be considered perfect. Before the millennium can be held to have arrived, something will have to be done about the London theatres. And the first step must be the abolition of the pit, that section of the house where two and a half dollar seats are sold for fifty cents.
The pit is an anachronism and must go. Managers cannot possibly raise the price of their orchestra seats, and owing to the high rents they have got somehow to extract more money from their audiences. The only solution is to do away with the pit. It will not be easy. The London public puts its ears back and squeals in a horrid manner when any move in this direction is contemplated. The managers must be firm. There will be issues, no doubt, for the first month or two after the change, but if they weather these all will be well. The absence of the pit will become a Tradition and will be respected as such.
It is one of the most perplexing problems of London life why anybody ever goes to the pit of a theatre. A man, it would seem, must have a wonderful faith in the quality of a show, to make him stand for two hours in a queue on an open street, during which period he not only gets a cold in the head but has to listen to a series of street singers, reciters, and xylophone players, who, seeing that he is fixed in the queue and cannot get away, gather round like vultures and do their worst. Or their best. At any rate, it sounds like their worst. Having endured all this, he is supposed to enter the theatre in a jolly, rollicking mood, prepared to steep himself in enjoyment. No wonder plays fail in London. It is a significant thing that the Winter Garden Theatre—I mean the one in Drury Lane—started out boldly by having its ground floor a solid mass of orchestra seats as in New York theatres, and got away with it to such an extent that it is the only theatre in London that has never had a failure.
LONDON, of course, needs more theatres, and it is a mystery why they are not built. As everybody knows who has anything to do with the drama, the first requirement for a new theatre is an evil-smelling alley where they can put the stage-door. In all the big cities of the world managers prowl about the slums, and when they have found a dark cul-de-sac packed with old cans and bits of cabbage-stalk they leap ecstatically into the air and shout “My Gosh! What a spot for a stage-door!” No other city is richer than London in these ideal locations. If any American manager is interested, I can lead him to a dozen alleys close to the Strand where the actors would be almost sure to be asphyxiated as they went in and out of the theatre. There is money in this, and business is business, so I may as well say at once that a small commission will not offend. I only want what’s fair.
There is also the problem of plays. Once, of course, that was easy; all the dramatists needed was a heroine in danger of being divorced. Whereas nowadays, so lax is the modern society, all people would feel, confronted with a heroine in such circumstances, would be mild surprise that she had not been divorced ages ago.