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CHAPTER IX The Drama
The Americans are nothing if not fiercely and incorrigibly theatrical. It is true that they have only one pose, namely, the pose of being gloriously and unaffectedly American. Yet in all the large issues of life they display a strong sense of the stage, they revel in the more obvious situations, and they have an innate love of a good curtain.

These facts are strikingly illustrated in the American law courts, where all small matters are managed on the lines of comedy, and all large matters on the lines of hot and lurid melodrama. The recent Thaw trial may be taken as a typical case in point, so far as melodrama is concerned. The speeches of counsel on both sides might have been written specially for the Adelphi Theatre, and every gesture of the rival declaimers would seem to have been modelled on the style of the adipose itinerant actor who plays “Othello” in penny gaffs.

So far as the real stage is concerned, the Americans are to be credited with quite a number of startling innovations. They were the sole inventors of the Deadwood Dick kind of play, which[82] involves the tooling on to the stage of an ancient and battered mail coach, accompanied by feats of unthinkable skill with the shooting irons. I believe, too, that they were the only begetters of the drama that has for its central attraction a real set-to between bona-fide bruisers, who fight with the gloves off and punish one another for all they are worth under American rules.

Then, of course, I must not forget to mention the world-renowned “Tank Drama.” It appears that an American manager happened once upon a time to find himself in a second-hand galvanised iron store. Here he discovered an enormous iron tank which he found could be purchased for a song. In a fit of abstraction, and in pursuance of the American tendency to buy anything and everything that can be had dirt cheap, he purchased the tank. And having it on his hands and no particular use for it, he hired a dramatist to write a play around it. To this woolly genius a tank of course suggested water and high dives and swimmers, and before you could say hey, presto! Mr. Manager found himself in possession of a sensational, if somewhat humid, melodrama, the like of which had never before been seen on any road.

The Tank Drama toured the States for years on end, to the approval and delight[83] of American audiences, and for anything I know to the contrary, it is still running, the tank itself having by this time, no doubt, grown a little leaky.

In England the public is familiar with melodramas in which the principal part is taken by steam-rollers, circular saws, fire-engines, and other pieces of mechanism. The Tank Drama, however, was the progenitor of them all. It was from the Americans, also, that we learnt to grace our melodramas with the presence on the stage of real live cows, racehorses, ducks and geese, faithful dogs, dancing bears, blue monkeys, and educated asses.

The American public prides itself upon the rapidity with which the national dramatists, from Clyde Fitch or Augustus Thomas to David Belasco or Theodore Kremer, can turn out almost any species of dramatic work to order. On the production of a five-act tragedy recently in New York, it was announced that the author had written “the whole contraption” in under the twenty-four hours. I can well believe it. The majority of American plays that come to us on this side bear unmistakable indications of having been written in haste, and with a single eye to getting through with the labour. This is no doubt due to the circumstance that[84] American managers have a mania for producing new pieces, and that the average run of such pieces is exceedingly short. Authors do not feel it to be worth their while to take pains, particularly as the majority of them have to subsist by dressing up in dramatic guise some new and big mechanical invention or some cause célèbre or tragedy in real life or some stupid story, which happens to have caught on, but which they know cannot in the nature of things keep the stage for more than a few weeks.

Although one is continually hearing of the triumphs of this or that American actor or actress in Shakespearean parts, it is a solemn fact that the average of Shakespearean acting in America is very much below that of any other country in which Shakespeare is consistently played. I cannot, of course, forget that America produced the late Mr. Phelps and gave us Miss Mary Anderson, whom all the world admired. But these are the exceptions. The rule is that the American actor who plays Shakespeare is a bull-necked, unlettered mummer who has served his apprenticeship to the circus business or to the plumbing, and roars out Shakespeare’s lines with a nasal intonation and an absolute lack of understanding. Nine out of ten[85] American actors ought to carry a net with them.

I am aware that it may be contended that the foregoing aspects of the American drama are things of the past, and that in all essential respects the theatre in America is nowadays on an equal footing with the theatre in England. In a considerable measure, this may be so, due, no doubt, to the mixed beneficence of the blessed brotherhood: Frohman, Klaw and Erlanger.

Yet there can be no getting away from the fact that the American plays and American companies that are from time to time brought to London for our edification fail woefully to interest us.

In London, quite lately we have been presented with two plays of American extraction and rendered by American companies. One of them “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch” to wit, at Terry’s Theatre, appears to have been a success, from a monetary point of view, and nobody can witness it without entertainment. On the other hand, it suffers from that pea-nutty exuberance and thinness of interest which are so characteristically American. The sentiment in it is of the floweriest and slobberiest sort, the comedy forced and jerky, and the setting squalid and depressing to a degree. It is said to be a transcript[86] of life among the American poorer classes, and herein conceivably it is instructive if not altogether uplifting; for it indicates only too plainly that the hackneyed American talk about “the full dinner-pail” and the general snugness and decency of the existence of the American poor has precious little foundation in fact. Of course, Mrs. Wiggs herself is made to exhibit singularly good qualities of heart, and a certain shrewd and humorous wisdom. But the rest of the characters—not even excluding the weepily-named Lovey-Mary and Mrs. Wiggs’s troops of wild-cat children—are the kind of people whom it sets one’s teeth on edge to meet. If, as I am told, America is full of Cabbage Patches, I can only say that America should hasten to the penitent form.

The other play of which London was adjured to expect great things was called “Strongheart.” It ran for a couple of weeks or more at the Aldwych Theatre, and was then taken off. “Strongheart” purported to give us some highly realistic glimpses of American college life. There was a great deal of American football in it, and a great deal of ra, ra, ra-ing about it. There were also unlimited quantities of ra, ra rant. But the plot exhibited the usual[87] thinness, the construction was slack and loose, and the characterisation feeble and colourless. If the company which supported the handsome Robert Edeson in this particular piece is to be taken as a fair sample, I feel free to conclude that in the lump American actors and actresses are a reasonably poor crowd. Play as they would, the men failed to convince us that they were persons of any particular breeding, and the women said their lines as if they were in pain, and walked through their parts like so many uninspired clothes horses. Of course I know America has many gifted actors and actresses such as William Faversham, James K. Hackett, E. H. Sothern, Julia Merlowe, Olga Nethersole and Mery Mannering—but, as luck will have it, with the exception of the second-named, who is a Canadian, they’re all English. And so is even the inimitable Hap Ward. On the whole, I think America will have to make some very serious strides in the dramatic art before she can fairly hope to show England anything that is worth looking at.

When you turn to the music halls you find the American in equally sad case. There is no performer of note on the English music-hall stage whose training and experience have been American.[88] From the other side we get a few trick bicyclists, wire-walkers, high divers, and comic speech makers whose pea-nutty witticisms are obviously culled from the comic papers. They help to fill up the programme, without in any sense helping to fill up the house.

It is in this connection that the Americans have made a practical avowal of their pathetic inferiority; for they are said to have made contracts with some of the leading English stars for appearances in America, on terms which plainly indicate that the American managers must be singularly hard up for talent and quite incapable of finding it in their own country.

The fact is, that in this as in a variety of other matters, the American’s cock-sureness and unblushing faith in his personal beauty and powers have led him considerably astray. The American really possesses scarcely any talent. All he can do is to boast and shout and advertise. And having little or nothing behind him to boast and shout and advertise about, he is bound in the long run to find himself at a disadvantage. Half the actresses and female music-hall artists of America are successful not because they can do anything, but because they have been “boosted” into fame by the pushful, blatant[89] manager. The sole accomplishment of many of them is that they can undress prettily in full view of their audiences.

For the rest they bolster up their position by extraneous escapades rather than by art. They are harum-scarum, feather-brained young women who for the most part would find it exceedingly difficult to get a living by the exercise of their alleged smartness before an English public. And as for American actors and music-hall men, the best that can be said of them is that when they are not vulgar they are deadly dull, and the worst that their real sphere of life is the American circus. I wish they would all take to the Tank.

The average American theatrical man, invariably strikes me as being a born circus-man, intended by nature to go around in a gaudy procession by day and to fill up his nights showing off wild beasts and freaks and Deadwood coaches. Unconsciously he does all his business and manages all his affairs on circus principles. He is for ever beating the drum and inviting the crowd to walk up and see the finest show on earth. The ideal man of his private bosom is the late P. T. Barnum, who was the father of advertisement and the originator of the fine art of “boosting.”[90] It was P. T. Barnum who said, or who got somebody to say for him, “When you have anything good, keep on letting on about it, and you will get rich.”

The American business man has always considered that saying to be the extreme height of philosophy.


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