Vanity Fair, February 1918
The Theatrical Slump
A Pathetic Little Interview With Mr. Charles B. Dillingham
By P. G. WODEHOUSE
TO a refined and sensitive man like myself it is positive torture to walk down Broadway nowadays and see all the victims of the worst period of depression which the theatre has suffered in the memory of man. A gaunt hand plucks at my sleeve, and the piteous voice of A. L. Erlanger asks me if I can spare a crust of bread, while simultaneously, on my other side, Lee Shubert begs me for the reversion of my 1917 trousers. That furtive figure, shuffling along on the opposite side of the street picking up cigarette ends, is the once prosperous Al Woods: the sandwich-man with the ragged beard is Ray Comstock: and in those dejected snow-shovellers down in Herald Square a keen eye can still recognize Florenz Ziegfeld, Freddie Zimmerman, and Cohan and Harris. The other evening, having been instructed by the editor of Vanity Fair to enquire into first causes and collect information about the state of the drama for the readers of this magazine, I sallied forth: and, having kind-heartedly bought a package of chewing-gum from Alf Hayman in Columbus Circle, I went downtown and picked Charles B. Dillingham out of the bread-line. In return for a square meal at a near-by hostelry—the first he had eaten since the season began—he allowed me to ask a few questions.
“What, in your opinion, Mr. Dillingham,” I enquired, “is the chief cause of the badness of theatrical business at the moment of going to press?”
He reached for the potatoes.
I SAW that I must wait till the conclusion of the meal before resuming the discussion. Over the cigars and coffee we returned to the subject in hand.
“In my opinion,” said Mr. Dillingham, pocketing a few lumps of sugar, “there are five reasons for the present slump in theatrical prosperity this year. First, too many theatres. Second, cut-rate ticket-agencies. Third, excessive tax. Fourth, inferiority of material owing to over-production. Fifth, the shock of the first realization on the part of the public of how much depends on us in the War. This realization may be said to have begun on the night of October the twenty-fifth, when the first reports of the disaster on the Italian front came in. Until then nobody had had any conception of the importance of the part which it would be necessary for America to play, and the general impression was that the Germans were already beaten and would soon have to give in. On October the twenty-fifth the slump began. In these days of stress it is very difficult for an ordinary play to make enough impression on people’s minds to be a success. Everybody is concerned with bigger things and it takes something out of the ordinary to inspire and draw audiences. Tell the waiter to bring some of that cheese and a few crackers.”
I GAVE the order, and Mr. Dillingham resumed, his haggard cheeks taking on the first beginnings of a faint pink glow as the food and drink reacted on his emaciated frame. “But the real trouble is that there are too many theatres nowadays. One afternoon eight years ago fifty theatrical men met in a Broadway office to celebrate a period of prosperity and to plan for its continuance. A. L. Erlanger took the chair and said the meeting was called to formulate some way of restricting the number of theatres in New York and in the principal cities of the country. A gentleman’s agreement was made that no more theatres were to be built: and the three years that followed were the most prosperous known in America.”
“And why,” I asked, “did not this state of things continue? On what broken bottle of misfortune did the car of prosperity burst a tire?”
“Towards the end of the third year there were only about ten of the fifty men on speaking terms with one another, and they were all busy with architects and real estate agents. A visitor to the offices of almost any big theatrical manager would find the waiting-room congested with builders, decorators, plumbers, and bricklayers, instead of playwrights and artists. Theatres sprang up over night.”
“But did new playwrights of ability spring up with the theatres?”
“NO!” he replied. “They did not. That is the trouble with this over-building of theatres. Playwrights who are able to write a satisfactory evening’s entertainment are rare, and players of personality are rare. If you try to spread them out thin over a great number of theatres, you court disaster.”
“I see what you mean,” I said cleverly. “Playwrights are greedy brutes and very limited in intelligence. Each has sufficient gray matter in the old bean to produce—let us say one good play a year. But, owing to the increase of theatres requiring material, each of these one-play men has been lured by the hope of gain into distributing his small stock of ideas over a number of productions, with the result that, instead of producing a single snorter, he has inflicted a free citizenry with two, three, or even four weak-spined flivvers. And so, too, with the players. Instead of having a really adequate cast at any one theatre, we have been obliged to go to this playhouse to see the gifted Jones, to that to enjoy the art of the talented Smith, and to a third to get a sight of the effervescent Brown.”
“Precisely. But are you interviewing me or just lecturing on the drama?” said Mr. Dillingham. “Ask the waiter if he has any cold pudding. I could also do with a couple of English mutton-chops. The managers who are able to plan a play, to give an idea to a playwright and then cast and rehearse a company properly,” he went on, “are few. The younger managers who have come up have not studied this important aspect of the business, though they are great on putting up a building and renting a vacant lot. But the only real managers nowadays are the men who own tobacco-shops and drug-stores. We are living in an era of Riker and Hegeman successes. Proprietors of soda-fountains are all buying fur-coats these days. The cut-rate ticket system has become a curse. One manager has so many tickets in drug-stores this year that they say he is a candidate for the Presidency of the Druggists’ Association. Limit the number of theatres and cut out underselling, and prosperity would return to the drama. In the old days there used to be a first-night every other week during the season, and it was an event. Now, there are three or four a week, and they are a nuisance. On Christmas Eve there were four simultaneous openings, which means that each got one-fourth of the publicity which it was entitled to receive.”
“What is to be done about it?”
“There is nothing to be done, unless you make theatre-building illegal or institute the Draft system for audiences. And, now, touching on the matter of a small loan?” I gave him a dollar. He thanked me brokenly; and I went on my dejected way.