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           Actor's Equity Association, SAG, AFTRA
 

A Glimpse of Theater History

 

William Pritchard Eaton's contemporary take on the demise of a pioneer Little Theatre Group.

THE LESSON OF THE WASHINGTON SQUARE PLAYERS

1916

This is the story of the Washington Square Players and their experiment at the little Bandbox Theatre in New York. It is told here because it illustrates better than any other experiment yet tried in the American theatre the vitalizing influence of the amateur spirit, and points the way toward possible provincial theatres in various sections of the land, conducted not from Broadway but by local artists, and democratically serving the local community.

Its success is the success of youth, enthusiasm, ideals, intelligence-and democracy. And the greatest of these is democracy. You cannot have a successful, i.e. a vital theatre, or any other vital art expression, just because a few rich people decide to have it.

You cannot superimpose art, or morals, or anything else, from above. Y our theatre must grow from the desires of the workers in the theatre, and the audiences in the theatre. That is the way the Washington Square Players began. They started in poverty, and they are comparatively poor yet. We hope they always will be. Then the workers in their theatre will always be its lovers. w e don't want them to work for nothing; but better for nothing than for great riches.

It was during the winter of 1914-15 that a group of young people, mostly living in the region around old Washington Square in New York, conceived the idea, or at least crystallized the idea, of starting a theatre of their own. v ery few of them had ever acted, except as amateurs. Several of them, however, had written plays and were filled with a perfectly natural desire to see these plays on a stage.

Others were artists who viewed the Broadway theatres with some contempt, perhaps, because of the old-fashioned settings and costumes they saw there. Still others were young men who had ambitions to stage plays. Some of these men and women were Hebrews, some belonged to the much-written-about Greenwich Village Bohemian crowd, some, like Samuel Eliot, Jr., grandson of the president-emeritus of Harvard, were positively Puritanic in antecedents. But one thing they had in common-a love of and enthusiasm for the theatre. No, there was another thing-none of them seems to have had any capital. However, they were young, and full of faith enough not to let that fact bother them. Calling themselves the Washington Square Play ers, they found the chance to rent a small theatre three miles from Washington Square, far off the beaten track, on East 57th Street beyond Third A venue. This theatre had been erected for use by professional actors, whose venture had speedily failed; and it could be rented cheaply. So the Washington Square Players moved in. They had chosen as their head director a young man named Edward Goodman. They had selected three one act plays and a pantomime for their opening bill, painted some scenery and designed some costumes, all without any relation to the way plays are chosen or scenery painted on Broadway. and they had drilled a group of players to act these pieces as well as they could, which, to confess the truth, wasn't very well.

They announced their first performance for February 19, 1915, and said they would give but two performances a week, on Friday and Saturday evenings. They did not advertise in the newspapers not having enough money. And they did not pay their actors anything, doubtless for the same reason. All seats were to be fifty cents each, none higher. The first performance came off on schedule, and there were plenty of friends on hand to fill the theatre. The newspaper critics journeyed over to the wilds east of Third Avenue also, curious to see what was going to happen, but probably not very hopeful. y our average critic has learned by bitter experience the futility of hope.

But the critics had a shock. Two of the three one-act plays presented were original works, "Licensed," by Basil Lawrence, the story of an erring girl and a pastor who took pity on her; and "Eugenically Speaking," by Edward Goodman, the director, an extremely racy satire on eugenics, done with an engaging frankness which made it quite different from the professional attempts at salaciousness made occasionally over on Broadway. The third play was Maeterlinck's haunting little study of death and stillness, "Interior," very imaginatively and effectively staged at a cost of $35.00. The bill ended with a pantomime called "Another Interior," the stage representing the interior of the human stomach, the hero being Gastric Juice, and the villains the various courses consumed at a dinner. Brave Gastric overthrew them one by one, though with failing strength, till at last he fell a victim to a particularly vividly colored cordial.

On the whole, the acting was amateur. But the plays themselves were all vital, full of meaning, or full of racy fun, and the settings were unusual and arresting. The critics went away delighted. Here was something fresh and new and different! The next night the theatre was again sold out. And it was sold out for every succeeding performance, though a third performance a week was soon added.

On March 26th the second bill was staged. The chief feature was Leonid Andreyev's satire, "Love of One's Neighbor," translated from the Russian, and the players were not quite up to the demands.

They did better with "Moon Down," a sketch of two girls in a hall bedroom, by John Reed, "My Lady's Honor," by Murdock Pemberton, and "Two Blind Beggars and One Less Blind," by Philip Moeller, one of the producing staff of the theatre. They did better still with a pretty pantomime, cleverly staged in black and white, called "The Shepherd in the Distance." The third bill was disclosed on May 7th, and included Maeterlinck's youthful and amusing satire, "The Miracle of St. Anthony," "April," a play of tenement house life by Rose Pastor Stokes, "Forbidden Fruit," a French amorous trifle adapted from Octave Feuillet, and, finally, "Saviors," a sketch written by Edward Goodman, of a mother and son and their attitude toward the son's desire to marry his mistress.

The season closed on Decoration Day, but not before one new production had been made, a translation of Tchekov's "The Bear." This play, together with the three most popular plays on the preceding bills-"Eugenically Speaking," "Interior" and "The Shepherd in the Distance"-rnade up the fourth bill for the final performances.

In the first season, then, from February 19th to May 30th, 1915, the Washington Square Players had given forty-three performances of fourteen one act plays and pantomimes, all but five of these being original native work. Two of the foreign plays were by Maeterlinck, two from the Russian and one from the French. All of them had been mounted simply but for the most part effectively and in the new manner. The chief weakness lay in the acting, yet the plays had sufficient vitality, the whole experiment sufficient zest and novelty, to attract patronage, and to encourage the Players to reengage the Bandbox Theatre for another year.

Their second season began on October 4th, 1915. During the summer the company had been somewhat augmented, with the most promising actors of the spring as a nucleus. There were, then, in October, about twenty-five men and women, almost without exception young, forming the active players. The producers, stage hands, even the treasurer of the theatre, were called in for mob scenes, and "extra people." All told perhaps, counting the scene painters, costume designers, business managers and producers the Washington Square Players numbered now about fifty. For the second season, the price of seats in a large portion of the house was raised to one dollar, to enable the payment of salaries to the leading actors and workers, for it was determined to give six performances a week, and the regular performers could not afford to donate so much of their time. In other words, the theatre determined to become self- supporting. A few professional players were also secured, including Lydia Lopoukova, now with the Russian Ballet, and Frank Conroy, formerly with Benson's company in England.

The first bill, acted on October 4th, did not disclose any great advance in acting ability, however, though the acquisition of Mr. Conroy was a help. But it did disclose one play of unusual quality, "Helena's Husband," by Philip Moeller, a satiric burlesque on Helen of Troy which kept the audience in gales of merriment, and which has since been played in other theatres through the country. The other plays on the program (all of one act, as before) were "Fire and Water," by Hervey White, a war sketch showing how French and German soldiers, between the lines, may be very good friends, "The Antick," by Percy Mackaye, and "Night of Snow " translated from the Italian of Roberto Bracco. This last play, after two weeks, was replaced by a revival of "Interior." Business started off briskly, and remained good for a couple of weeks. Then it began to fall off.
The second bill for the season was produced on November 8th, and was called "a program of Comparative Comedy." It included Schnitzler's clever play, "Literature," (not very well acted), Bracco's "Honorable Lover " de Musset's "Whirns" (very inadequately acted, it being a work only skilled professional comedians could make interesting in English) , and finally, "Overtones," by Alice Gerstenberg of Chicago. This, the only native play on the bill, proved easily the most interesting, and was the best acted. Two women, shadowed by their real selves, or "overtones," meet and talk. They say one thing, their real selves say what they really would say if they spoke their minds. It was a clever sketch, and has since been acted at the Indianapolis Little Theatre and elsewhere, even, we believe, in vaudeville.

It was not till the third bill was presented, on January 10th, 1916, that the Players began to show the fruits of sustained practice in acting, and gave a performance which could compare with professional work. And at the same time, it should be noted, public patronage began to be more steady and full houses every night the rule. Ultimately, no experimental theatre can succeed until it develops a company of players who can act. Enthusiasm, clever plays, picturesque and novel scenery, will never be a permanent substitute for acting. In the long run the theatre rests on the actors' art, a fact which can never be ignored by the founders of experiments.

The third bill was most notable for a play by Lewis Beach, one of Professor Baker's graduates at Harvard, called "The Clod." It was adroitly acted, especially by Miss Josephine Meyer, from the start a most useful member of the company. This tense and thrilling little piece, perhaps the best one act play written in America in some years, showed a mean border farm during our Civil War, at night. The old farmer and his wife were the only occupants. War had left them nothing, even robbing them of sleep. A Union despatch rider, closely pursued, enters, and the action so befalls that the old woman hides him to avoid trouble with his two Confederate pursuers. These pursuers demand food from her, which she dumbly gets, but when one of them insults her, calling her a clod and worse, something in her snaps and she shoots them both dead at point blank range with a shotgun. The Union soldier hails her as the savior of an army corps, as a patriot.

But all it means to her is some broken crockery and the loss of a needed night's sleep. The play is rich in suspense, in theatrical excitement, and richer in spiritual suggestion. It is a little masterpiece.
The other plays on this bill were "The Road House in Arden," a fantastic skit about Shakespeare and Lord Bacon, the scene occurring at a road house kept by Hamlet and his wife Cleopatra; a translation of Wedekind's cynical sketch of the artistic temperament, "The Tenor" ; and, finally, a rather stupid and poorly performed pantomime called "The Red Cloak." The fourth bill, presented on March 20th, was marked by a still more noticeable improvement in acting, and a consequent increase in public patronage.

Three plays were original works, and all three were performed with precision. The first was a thriller by Guy Bolton and Torn Carlton (the former being a playwright for the professional theatre), called "Children," in which a negro mother shoots her son dead rather than give him up to a lynching party.

The second was an amusing satire on divorce, called "The Age of Reason," by Cecil Dorrian. Two little girls in knee length frocks and hair ribbons talk like the characters in a Wilde play , and finally put the about-to-be-divorced parents of one of them on trial. It is merry fooling, and not without some point. The third original play was "The Magical City," written in vers libre by Zoe Akins, and mounted in a setting of great beauty, quite worthy of such professional designers as Joseph Urban or Livingston Platt. The scenery, however, left a more definite impression than the play, which seemed to be trying to capture the poetic glamor of Gotharn and its wealth, the glamor which snares certain women and makes them the mistresses of the money kings: Somehow, realism seems the proper treatment for this theme. At any rate, "The Magical City" didn't persuade us that it isn't. But the production of the play was certainly an attempt at a different and more intense handling of a sordid Broadway story, and so needs no defense. The bill ended with a version of the old 15th century French farce, "Master Pierre Patelin," one of the earliest known examples of the modern drama as it was emerging from the Middle Ages, and one of the best. Unfortunately, the Washington Square Players, instead of acting this piece in its integrity and preserving its historic flavor, cut it unmercifully and acted it in a kind of animated puppet style. The result was neither amusing nor educative. They would much better have left it alone. However, some errors in judgment must be allowed to everybody, especially to young folks and pioneers. On May 7th, 1916, the Players acted for the first time a long play, Maeterlinck's "Aglavaine and Selysette." This performance, however, was not repeated, as it was a special production for the season subscribers and was not intended for the public. It need not concern us here, though it is only fair to state that the scenery was unusual in design and full of beauty and suggestion.

The last bill of the season was presented on May 22, and again a long play was chosen, Marian Fell's translation of Tchekhov's "The Sea Gull." This play was continued until June 1St, when the Players moved from the tiny Bandbox Theatre to the Comedy Theatre near Broadway, and there presented a few of their most successful productions until the coming of hot weather. They have leased the Comedy for the season of 1916-17, needing its ampler stage for their scenic experiments, and its ampler seating capacity for their revenue. The production of "The Sea Gull," it must be admitted, gave more practice to the players than pleasure to the audience. Frankly, it was too much for their still immature histrionic powers. The plays of Tchekhov are almost unknown on the American stage, and while we must applaud the courage of the Washington Square Players in attempting to remedy this lack, we cannot help feeling that no great rush to the Russian dramatist will follow. "The Sea Gull," to be sure, is lucidity itself by comparison with "The Cherry Garden," but by comparison with life as we know it in our native drama even "The Sea Gull" is a book sealed sevenfold. N ot its sI uggish back water of dramatic progression, not even its pictures of alien society, per plex us, but rather its Chinese puzzle of irrelevancies. No character in it can stick to one idea for more than two speeches, and no character in it has any will, unless poor Constantine may be said to have the will to die. Lack of will, lack of concentration -the two are really the same. Tchekhov, with uncanny felicity, makes an ironic nightmare of these negative traits in his countrymen. A Russian woman once told me that "The Cherry Garden" is so intensely Russian that she herself could not understand it after she had lived eight years in America. "The Sea Gull" differs only in degree. We whose modern philosopher is William James, with his "Will to Believe," and who still applaud Emerson's "Trust thyself, every heart vibrates to that iron string," can have small comprehension of, or even stomach for, a play like "The Sea Gull." And to make it at all impressive, certainly, a very high grade of subtle acting is required, not in one or two parts, but in all. Tchekhov never hitched his wagon to a star! . It would be futile to analyze the performance given at the Bandbox. The play was too far beyond the powers of every one concerned. It is only necessary to point out that the abrupt transition, the shift from a strong emotion to an irrelevancy, is possibly the most difficult technical feat in the actor's art.

However, this failure of the Washington Square Players had no criminal element of low aim. At the worst, it merely proved that it takes longer to develop a company of competent actors out of a group of amateurs than we impatient Americans like to fancy. At best, it showed that the Players are ambitious, and wish to use their successes as stepping stones, dreading the commonplace more than failure, the easily popular more than the difficult and the exotic. The important thing is, not that they have failed at their first attempt at a four-act play but, that they have succeeded by many happy productions of one-act plays in persuading the public to come to see them in the longer work-in short, that they are now an accepted theatrical institution in New York, and are going on to wider effort. Beginning a year and a half ago as theatrical amateurs, this group of young enthusiasts have by talent and intelligence and cooperative enthusiasm stormed the forces of entrenched professionalism, and given to New York its livest theatre. In a little over a year they have produced thirty short plays and pantomimes, nineteen of them original native works, as well as two long plays; they have discovered in Philip Moeller and Lewis Beach, especially, writers of talent; they have given to young scenic artists opportunities for free experiment in stage pictures; and finally, they have demonstrated that persistent and intelligent practice of acting, even by amateurs, can develop a company of players the public will pay to see, though eigh0 teen months will not make them finished actors. In short, they have at least begun to prove that what the Abbey Theatre players did in Dublin is not impossible in New York.
And if it not impossible in New York it is not impossible elsewhere in America. Curiously enough, the other spot on the map of the United States where the amateur spirit seems at present to be accomplishing the most in the theatre is North Dakota. Under the leadership of Frederick Henry Koch at the University of North Dakota, pageants are being written by groups of people cooperatively, and acted and staged by the community. Professor Arvold of the North Dakota Agricultural College has devised a "Little Country Theatre" which serves the small communities, the people of these communities themselves being the actors. The theatrical life of the countryside within the sphere of influence of these two universities is in some part spontaneously fostered by the people themselves, not supplied to them by outsiders. The amateur spirit is making a theatre there, and some day it will no doubt make a drama.

There have been numerous attempts in recent years to start so-called little theatres in various cities, such as Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Indianapolis. But in too many cases they have come to grief, and upon inspection of the wreck the shrewd observer has discovered that they were not in reality a spontaneous, democratic growth, but superimposed from above by some person or persons of wealth. A genuine demand for them did not exist, and a genuine enthusiasm for acting, writing, scene painting, staging, was not sufficiently manifest in a large enough group of potential artists. Samuel Eliot, Jr., went out from the Bandbox Theatre to be director of the Indianapolis Little Theatre last autumn-and only with the utmost difficulty could secure casts for his productions; which simply meant that Indianapolis was not yet ready for such an experiment. It was superimposed, not spontaneously engendered by the enthusiasm and ambitions of the potential artists themselves. Probably very few cities or sections of the country are ready, as yet. Nevertheless, more and more people everywhere are beginning to see a light. More and more people are beginning to realize that the allied arts of the theatre can, and ought to be, a field for wholesome self-expression, not merely for exploitation by Broadway shop keepers. More and more people are realizing that each community has a right to its own theatre, its own dramatic idiom, and that the only way the community can ever achieve its own theatre is to set out to develop it from the bot tom, by its own efforts. More and more people are beginning to realize a truth some of us have been reiterating for years-that the future development of the American theatre must come through a renaissance in the practical theatre itself of the amateur spirit, brought into the theatre by amateurs who, with proper and intelligent leadership, will remain to become self-respecting professional artists, or else by the existing professionals themselves breaking away from the present chains of exploitation.

And because the Washington Square Players have demonstrated the entire possibility of such a renaissance, right in the citadel of smug, money-grubbing exploitation, New York City, their success is the most important thing just now in the American theatre.