William Pritchard Eaton's contemporary take on the demise
of a pioneer Little Theatre Group.
THE LESSON OF THE WASHINGTON SQUARE PLAYERS
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
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
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
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
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.