Alexander Woollcott ~ And the Playwright

Every American playwright goes about his work these days oppressed by a foreboding. He suspects that before long a censor is going to materialize out of thin air to take stern and morose charge of the American theatre. It is true that no statutory precipitation of such an agent has been definitely proposed. It is true that the policeman from the nearest corner has not gone so far as to drop around and warn him that he’d better be careful. Nevertheless, he has the foreboding. He perceives dimly that a desire to chasten the stage is in the air. And he is right. It, is. It has been ever since the war.

Of course an itch to lay hands on the theatre was begetting restlessness in the American bosom considerably prior to April 6, 1917. It is part of this country’s Puritan inheritance to believe that playgoing is somehow bad, that an enjoyment and patronage of the theatre is sinful. This belief flows as an unconscious undercurrent in the thought even of those clergymen who try pathetically hard to seem and be liberal and unpharisaical, the kind who always begin their lectures on Avery Hopwood by saying that they yield to no one in their admiration and respect for the many splendid ladies and gentlemen of the stage whom they are proud to number among their acquaintances.

Shaw, in his comparatively mild-mannered preface to “The Showing Up of Blanco Posnet,” recognizes the Puritan hostility to the theatre, but, somewhat perversely, ascribes it to the fact that the promenoirs have always been used as show-windows by the courtesans of each generation. I suspect, however, that that hostility was more deeply rooted. The Puritans disliked the theatre because it was jolly. It was a place where people went in deliberate quest of enjoyment. And you weren’t supposed to do that on earth. Plenty of time for that later on.

When I was a knee-breeched schoolboy in Philadelphia, some of the more dissipated of us used to organize Saturday excursions to Keith’s old Eighth Street Theatre, a vaudeville temple known to the natives as the Buy-Joe. Fortified with a quarter and some sandwiches, one went at eleven in the morning and hung on till the edge of midnight. To my genuine surprise and confusion, I gathered that some of our classmates not only avoided these orgies, but sincerely believed that we, who indulged in them were simply courting Hell’s fire. They stayed at home and, I suppose, read “Elsie Dinsmore.”

It so happens that I never encountered that book during my formative years, but was in my hopelessly corrupted thirties before ever I saw a copy. Even then, it did not lack interest. And one passage, at least, richly rewarded a glance through its pages. It seems that Elsie, arriving from somewhere, reached some city in the late evening. Her father (a rakish, devil-may-care fellow who thought it was all right for Elsie to play the piano on Sunday) met her at the station and engaged a cabriolet to take her across town to whatever shelter had been selected for the night. As they were bowling along one of the principal streets, Elsie noticed a building which the author described in shuddering accents as having, if I remember correctly, “a lighted façade.” The tone, if not the precise words of the description, rather suggested that here was a gambling hell whose lower circles were dedicated to rites of nameless infamy. Elsie shrank back into the cloistered shadows of the cab. “Oh, father,” she cried in hurt bewilderment, “what kind of place was that?” Smitten, apparently, with a certain remorse that he had suffered her virginal eyes to reflect so scabrous a spot, he put a sheltering arm around her and said, sadly: “That, little daughter, was a THEATRE.”

At which limp climax, perhaps, you smile a little. But it is well to remember that the children who were molded by “Elsie Dinsmore” are now grown up and can be detected voting warmly at every election. Many of them kicked over the traces long ago, but there are also many who are reading Harold Bell Wright today. They admire Henry Ford. They sit enthralled at the feet of Dr. John Roach Straton. And, not wryly but with undiscouraged faith, they vote away for the Hylans and the Hardings of each recurrent crisis. They brought the bootlegger into existence and, at a rallying cry lifted by anyone against the theatre, they will come scurrying intently from a thousand unsuspected flats and two-story houses.

They are the more responsive to such cries since the war. That might have been foreseen by any one at all familiar with the psychopathology of reform. A cigarette addict who, in a spartan moment, swears off smoking, is familiar enough with the inner gnaw that robs him of his sleep and roils his dinner for days and days. His body, long habituated to the tobacco, had dutifully taken on the business of manufacturing its antidote. When the tobacco is abruptly removed, the body continues for a while to turn out the antidote as usual and during that while, that antidote goes roaming angrily through the system, seeking something to oppose and destroy.

A somewhat analogous condition has agitated the body politic ever since the late Fall of 1918. The passage of the Eighteenth Amendment had robbed the prohibitionists of their chief excitement; then the signing of the Armistice took away the glamor of public-spiritedness from all those good people who had had such a splendid time keeping an eye on their presumably treasonable neighbors. Behold, then, the Busy Body (which is in every one of us) all dressed up and nowhere to go. The itch became tremendous. The moving pictures caught it first. No wonder the American playwright is uneasy. He ought to be.

He dreads a censorship of the theatre because he suspects (not without reason) that it will be corrupt, that it will work foolishly, and that, having taken and relished an inch, it will take an ell.

He is the more uneasy because he realizes that the theatre presents a special incitement and a special problem—a problem altogether different from that presented by the bookstall, for instance. The play, once produced, is open to all the world. It may have been written with the thought that it would amuse Franklin P. Adams, but it is attended (in a body) by the Unintelligentsia. It may have been heavily seasoned in the hope that it would jounce the rough boy of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken-and lo, there in the third row on the aisle, is Dr. Frank Crane, being made visibly ill by it. Your playwright may write a piece to touch the memories and stir the hearts of elderly sinners, but he has to face the fact that the girls from Miss Spence’s school may come fluttering to it, row on row.

On his desk is a seductive two-volume assemblage of “Poetica Erotica,” edited by T. R. Smith, the antiquarian. It is a book which, if flaunted, would agitate the Postmaster General, stir up the Grand Jury, and make the Society for the Suppression of Vice call a special mass-meeting. It is managed as a commercial article by a system of furtive, semi-private sales which probably enhance its value as a source of revenue and yet shut the mouth of the heirs of Anthony Comstock. A folder announces that the juicy Satyr icon of Petronius Arbiter will shortly issue from the same presses. And so on, endlessly. It is a neat arrangement but one which cannot be imitated by the playwright. When he wants to be naughty, he must make up his mind to being naughty right out on the street-corner where every one can see him.

And though, in the moments when he is disposed to temporize, he sometimes thinks that suspect plays might, like saucy novels, be first inspected in manuscript, he knows full well that no such tactics are really feasible in the theatre. Your publisher, inwardly hot with resentment, may nevertheless take the occasional precaution of showing the script of a thin-ice book to the authorities—even to the self-constituted ones—thereby forestalling prosecution by agreeing to delete in advance such phrases and incidents as seem likely to agitate those authorities unduly. But the flavor and significance of a play depends too much on the manner of its performance and cannot be clearly forecast prior to that performance any more than the hue of a goblet can be guessed before the wine is poured. I can testify to that—I, who in my time, have seen players make a minx out of Ophelia, a mild-mannered mouse out of Katherine, an honest woman out of Lady Macbeth and a benevolent old gentleman out of Shylock. I have seen French players cast as the servants of Petruchio invade “The Taming of the Shrew” with a comic pantomime in which they fought for their turns at the keyhole of Petruchio’s bedroom wherein Kate was being subjected to a little off-stage taming. It would have amused Shakespeare immoderately, I imagine, and certainly it would have surprised him. Until his piece is spoken, even the author cannot tell—and thereafter, from night to night, he cannot be sure.

That is why there is the quality of an eternal fable in the pathetic old tale of the stagehand who had always felt that, if chance would ever give him even the smallest of rôles, he would show these actors where their shortcomings were. He would not drone out even the least important and most perfunctory of speeches. Not he. Into every syllable he would pour real meaning, real conviction. At last, after twenty years of yearning from the wings, chance did rush him on as an understudy. Unfortunately, he was assigned to the role of the page in “King John,” who must march into the throne-room and announce the approach of Philip the Bastard.

So, it seems apparent that any real supervision of the theatre must function with relation to produced plays and cannot deal with mere unembodied and undetermined manuscripts.

Our playwright’s suspicion that such supervision, if managed by a politically appointed censor, would work foolishly, are justified by all he has heard of such functionaries as they have worked in other fields and in other lands. This was true of the gag which the doughty Brieux finally pried off the mouth of the French playwright. It has certainly been true of the mild and intermittent discipline to which the remote and slightly puzzled Lord Chamberlain has subjected the English dramatists. Indeed, when their mutinous mutterings finally jogged Parliament into inspecting his activities, the Lord Chamberlain was somewhat taken aback by the tactics of Shaw, who, instead of hissing him for forbidding public performances of certain Shaw and Ibsen plays, derided and denounced him instead for the plays he had not suppressed. And indeed, for every play which the Lord Chamberlain has suppressed, the old playgoer of London could point to five which, had he been more intelligent, he might more reasonably have suppressed in its place.

But after all those scuffles on the Strand do seem part of the strange customs of a fusty-dusty never-never land. So our American playwright turns, instead, to the purifications effected nearer home. He looks apprehensively into the matter of the movies. As an occasional scenario writer, he has been instructed by bulletins sent out for his guidance, little watch-your-step leaflets which list the alterations ordered in earlier pictures by the august Motion Picture Commission of the State of New York. Most of them are fussy little disapprovals of language used in the titles. You mustn’t say: “I shall kill Lester Crope.” Better say: “I shall destroy the false Lester Crope” or something like that. You mustn’t say “roué.” You mustn’t say: “I don’t like that rich old roué hanging around you.” Better say: “I don’t like that rich old sport.” And when, in a moment of self-indulgence, a title-writer allowed himself the luxury of writing “In a moment of madness, I wronged a woman,” the Censor seems to have turned scarlet and issued the following order: “Substitute for ‘wronged’ the word ‘offended’ or something similar.”

“Or something similar.” Somehow, that seems to recall an old “Spanish for Beginners” textbook which bade me not bother with the “tutoyer” business as it would not be needed during my travels in Spain, unless I married there “or something similar.”

At all events, no playwright can be scoffed at as an alarmist who ventures to fear that a censorship of the drama will, in practice, be foolish. At the thought of such frivolous and fatuous blue-pencillings of his next drama (which is to be his master-piece, by the way) our playwright becomes profoundly depressed and every time he goes out to dinner or finds himself with a small, cornered audience at the club, he winds up the talk on this bugaboo of his.

Out of the resulting prattle, two widespread impressions always come to the top, two familiar comments on the subject which, whenever questionable plays are mentioned, seem to emerge as regularly and as automatically as does the applause which follows the rendition of Dixie by any restaurant orchestra in New York. Both comments are absurd.

One comes from the man who can be counted on to say: “They tell me that show at the Eltinge—What’s it called? ‘Tickling Tottie’s Tummy?’—well, they say it’s pretty raw. Certainly does beat all how there are some men who just have to see a show soon’s they hear it’s smutty. I can’t understand it.”

This might be called the Comment Ingenuous. A man who never fails to edge into any group whence the bent head and the hoarse chuckle tells him that a shady story is on, a man who would have to think hard to name a friend of his to whom he would not rush with the latest scandalous anecdote brought in by the drummers from Utica—such a man will, nevertheless, express a pious surprise when the crowds flock to see the latest Hopwood farce just because it is advertised as indecorous. It is not known why he is surprised.

Or, if he is not surprised, then he falls over backward and makes the Comment Cynical. When he hears that “Under Betty’s Bolster” is making a fortune while “The Grey Iconoclast” is playing to empty benches next door, he gives a sardonic little laugh (which he reserves for just such occasions) and says: “Of course. You might have known. Old Channing Pollock was right when he said: ‘Nothing risqué, nothing gained.’ Don’t the smutty shows always make money? Doesn’t the public invariably stampede to the most bedridden plays? Isn’t the pornographic play the most valuable of all theatrical properties?”

To which rhetorical questions, the answer in each case, as it happens, is “No.” The blush is not, of course, a bad sign in the box-office. But the chuckle of recognition is a better one. So is the glow of sentiment. So is the tear of sympathy. The smutty and the scandalous have a smaller and less active market than homely humor, for instance, or melodramatic excitement or pretty sentiment. When “Aphrodite” was brought here from Paris, it was, for various reasons, impossible to recapture for the translated dramatization the flavor of abnormal eroticism which lent the book a certain phosphorescent glow at home. So its producers relied on lots and lots of nudity to give it réclame here. At this the Hearst papers did some rather pointed blushing and the next morning, there was a grand scrimmage at the box-office and seats were hawked about for grotesque prices. Whereupon the Comment Cynical could be heard on all sides. But when at the end of the season or so later, “Aphrodite” was withdrawn with a shortage of a hundred and ninety thousand dollars or so on its books, the Cynics were too engrossed with some other play to mention the fact. To be sure that shortage was more than made up next season on the road, but it ought to be mentioned that “Aphrodite” knew the indignity of many and many an empty row in New York.

The great fortunes, as a matter of fact, are made with plays like “Peg o’ My Heart” and “The First Year,” both as pure as the driven snow. It is true that Avery Hopwood has grown rich on his royalties. But not so rich as Winchell Smith, who has dealt exclusively with sweetness and light. Also those who laugh most caustically over the Hopwood estate usually find it convenient to ignore the fact that the greatest single contribution to it has been made by “The Bat,” at which Dr. Straton might conceivably faint from excitement but at which he would have to work pretty hard to do any blushing.

So much for the familiar catch-words and their validity. A little discouraged by the fatuity of all lay discussion, our playwright may be pictured as retreating to the clubrooms of the American Dramatists and there finding his fellow-craftsmen all busy as bees on scenarios overflowing with not particularly original sin. They are turning them out hurriedly with an “After-me-the-deluge” gleam in their haunted eyes. Some such despairing courtship of disaster may be needed to explain the jostling procession of harlots which marked the American Drama in the season of 1921-1922. An unprecedentedly large percentage of the heroines had either just been ruined (or were just about to be ruined) as the first curtain rose. Also the plays wallowed in a defiant squalor of language which, five years before, would have called out the reserves.

The privilege to indulge in such didos is not, as a matter of fact, especially dear to them. They do not really prize unduly the right to use the word “slut” once in every act. They can even bear up whenever a law forbids disrobing on the stage. They know that most pruriency in the theatre derives from the old frustrations sealed up and festering in the mind of the onlooker who detects it. They suspect, from what little reading they have managed in the psychology of outlets, that the more mock-raping there is done on the stage of the local opera house, the less real raping will be done on the greensward of the nearest park. But they know, too, that the force of modesty is one of the strongest and most ancient instincts of civilized man, that probably it is a sound and healthy one, inextricably involved in the race’s instinct of self-preservation and self-perpetuation. Anyway, they feel that the discussion draws them into matters unarguable.

They dread a Censor most for fear his appetite will grow by what it feeds on. They know that the Lord Chamberlain began by exorcising obscenity from the English theatre and ended by banning so fiercely Puritanical a play as “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” because it admitted the existence of brothel-keeping as a business and by shutting up such innocent merriment as “The Mikado” because its jocularity might offend the (at the moment) dear Japanese.

Most American playwrights would derive a certain enjoyment from watching a posse of citizens in wrathful pursuit of one of those theatrical managers who are big brothers to the trembling crones that totter up to you on the Boulevard des Italiens and try to sell you a few obscene postal-cards. But most American playwrights would feel a genuine apprehension lest such a posse, confused in its values and its mission, might then turn and lock up Eugene O’Neill because of the rough talk that lends veracity to “The Hairy Ape” or because of the steady scrutiny which has the effect of stripping naked the unhappy creatures of his play called “Diff’rent.”

They would be perfectly willing to co-operate with a State official appointed to prevent the use of naughty words on the American stage, but they darkly suspect that he would then require every heroine to bring a letter from her pastor and would end by interfering with all plays which suggested, for instance, that government had been known, from time to time, to prove corrupt, wealth to become oppressive and law, on rare occasions, to seem just a wee bit unjust. They are minded to resist any supervision of the theatre’s manners for fear it might shackle in time the theatre’s thought. Today or tomorrow they may be seen temporizing or at least negotiating with the forces of suppression in any community, but they are really seeking all the time to frustrate those forces. And will so seek ever and always, law or no law. It was just such frustration they were seeking when after a season of ruined heroines (and ruined managers) they all gravely sat down in April, 1922, and drew up a panel of 300 pure-minded citizens from which a jury could be called to pass on any play complained of.

And they have the comfort of knowing that any such supervision, today or tomorrow, legalized or roundabout, mild or incessant, is bound to be superficial, spasmodic and largely formal. They know that in the long run the theatre in each day and community, will manage somehow to express the taste of that day and community. They know that it is among the sweet revenges of life that the o’er-leaping censor always defeats himself.

They derive a curious comfort from the story of the reviewer for a Boston journal who once described a musician as remaining seated through a concert in the pensive attitude of Buddha contemplating his navel. It is a story within whose implications lies all that has ever been said, or ever will be said, about censorship. The copy-readers and make-up men, it seems, could see nothing especially infamous in their reviewer’s little simile. As poor George Sampson said of the outraged Mrs. Wilfer’s under-petticoat: “We know it’s there.” At all events, the offending word passed all the sentries and was printed as written, when, too late, it caught the horrified eye of the proprietor. At the sight of so crassly physical a term in the chaste columns of his own paper, he rushed to the telephone at the club and called up the managing editor. That word must come out. But the paper was already on the presses. Even as they spoke, these were whirling out copy after copy. Too late to reset? Yes, much too late. But was there not still some remedy which would keep at least part of the edition free from that dreadful word? Wasn’t it still possible to rout out the type at that point, to chisel the word away and leave a blank? Yes, that was possible. So the presses were halted, the one word was scraped out, the presses whirred again and the review, with a gape in the line, went up and down Beacon Street. Whereat Boston that night shook with a mighty laughter—the contented laughter of the unregenerate.

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