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The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism
Dramatic Art and the Theatre Business
by Hamilton, Clayton


Art makes things which need to be distributed; business distributes things which have been made: and each of the arts is therefore necessarily accompanied by a business, whose special purpose is to distribute the products of that art. Thus, a very necessary relation exists between the painter and the picture-dealer, or between the writer and the publisher of books. In either case, the business man earns his living by exploiting the products of the artist, and the artist earns his living by bringing his goods to the market which has been opened by the industry of the business man. The relation between the two is one of mutual assistance; yet the spheres of their labors are quite distinct, and each must work in accordance with a set of laws which have no immediate bearing upon the activities of the other. The artist must obey the laws of his art, as they are revealed by his own impulses and interpreted by constructive criticism; but of these laws the business man may, without prejudice to his efficiency, be largely ignorant. On the other hand, the business man must do his work in accordance with the laws of economics,—a science of which artists ordinarily know very little. Business is, of necessity, controlled by the great economic law of supply and demand. Of the practical workings of this law the business man is in a position to know much more than the artist; and the latter must always be greatly influenced by the former in deciding as to what he shall make and how he shall make it. This influence of the publisher, the dealer, the business manager, is nearly always beneficial, because it helps the artist to avoid a waste of work and to conserve and concentrate his energies; yet frequently the mind of the maker desires to escape from it, and there is scarcely an artist worth his salt who has not at some moments, with the zest of truant joy, made things which were not for sale. In nearly all the arts it is possible to secede at will from all allegiance to the business which is based upon them; and Raphael may write a century of sonnets, or Dante paint a picture of an angel, without considering the publisher or picture-dealer. But there is one of the arts—the art of the drama—which can never be disassociated from its concomitant business—the business of the theatre. It is impossible to imagine a man making anything which might justly be called a play merely to please himself and with no thought whatever of pleasing also an audience of others by presenting it before them with actors on a stage. But the mere existence of a theatre, a company of actors, an audience assembled, necessitates an economic organisation and presupposes a business manager; and this business manager, who sets the play before the public and attracts the public to the play, must necessarily exert a potent influence over the playwright. The only way in which a dramatist may free himself from this influence is by managing his own company, like Molière, or by conducting his own theatre, like Shakespeare. Only by assuming himself the functions of the manager can the dramatist escape from him. In all ages, therefore, the dramatist has been forced to confront two sets of problems rather than one. He has been obliged to study and to follow not only the technical laws of the dramatic art but also the commercial laws of the theatre business. And whereas, in the case of the other arts, the student may consider the painter and ignore the picture-dealer, or analyse the mind of the novelist without analysing that of his publisher, the student of the drama in any age must always take account of the manager, and cannot avoid consideration of the economic organisation of the theatre in that age. Those who are most familiar with the dramatic and poetic art of Christopher Marlowe and the histrionic art of Edward Alleyn are the least likely to underestimate the important influence which was exerted on the early Elizabethan drama by the illiterate but crafty and enterprising manager of these great artists, Philip Henslowe. Students of the Queen Anne period may read the comedies of Congreve, but they must also read the autobiography of Colley Cibber, the actor-manager of the Theatre Royal. And the critic who considers the drama of to-day must often turn from problems of art to problems of economics, and seek for the root of certain evils not in the technical methods of the dramatists but in the business methods of the managers.

At the present time, for instance, the dramatic art in America is suffering from a very unusual economic condition, which is unsound from the business standpoint, and which is likely, in the long run, to weary and to alienate the more thoughtful class of theatre-goers. This condition may be indicated by the one word,—over-production. Some years ago, when the theatre trust was organised, its leaders perceived that the surest way to win a monopoly of the theatre business was to get control of the leading theatre-buildings throughout the country and then refuse to house in them the productions of any independent manager who opposed them. By this procedure on the part of the theatre trust, the few managers who maintained their independence were forced to build theatres in those cities where they wished their attractions to appear. When, a few years later, the organised opposition to the original theatre trust grew to such dimensions as to become in fact a second trust, it could carry on its campaign only by building a new chain of theatres to house its productions in those cities whose already existing theatres were in the hands of the original syndicate. As a result of this warfare between the two trusts, nearly all the chief cities of the country are now saddled with more theatre-buildings than they can naturally and easily support. Two theatres stand side by side in a town whose theatre-going population warrants only one; and there are three theatres in a city whose inhabitants desire only two. In New York itself this condition is even more exaggerated. Nearly every season some of the minor producing managers shift their allegiance from one trust to the other; and since they seldom seem to know very far in advance just where they will stand when they may wish to make their next production in New York, the only way in which they can assure themselves of a Broadway booking is to build and hold a theatre of their own. Hence, in the last few years, there has been an epidemic of theatre building in New York. And this, it should be carefully observed, has resulted from a false economic condition; for new theatres have been built, not in order to supply a natural demand from the theatre-going population, but in defiance of the limits imposed by that demand.

A theatre-building is a great expense to its owners. It always occupies land in one of the most costly sections of a city; and in New York this consideration is of especial importance. The building itself represents a large investment. These two items alone make it ruinous for the owners to let the building stand idle for any lengthy period. They must keep it open as many weeks as possible throughout the year; and if play after play fails upon its stage, they must still seek other entertainments to attract sufficient money to cover the otherwise dead loss of the rent. Hence there exists at present in America a false demand for plays,—a demand, that is to say, which is occasioned not by the natural need of the theatre-going population but by the frantic need on the part of warring managers to keep their theatres open. It is, of course, impossible to find enough first-class plays to meet this fictitious demand; and the managers are therefore obliged to buy up quantities of second-class plays, which they know to be inferior and which they hardly expect the public to approve, because it will cost them less to present these inferior attractions to a small business than it would cost them to shut down some of their superfluous theatres.

We are thus confronted with the anomalous condition of a business man offering for sale, at the regular price, goods which he knows to be inferior, because he thinks that there are just enough customers available who are sufficiently uncritical not to detect the cheat. Thereby he hopes to cover the rent of an edifice which he has built, in defiance of sound economic principles, in a community that is not prepared to support it throughout the year. No very deep knowledge of economics is necessary to perceive that this must become, in the long run, a ruinous business policy. Too many theatres showing too many plays too many months in the year cannot finally make money; and this falsity in the economic situation reacts against the dramatic art itself and against the public's appreciation of that art. Good work suffers by the constant accompaniment of bad work which is advertised in exactly the same phrases; and the public, which is forced to see five bad plays in order to find one good one, grows weary and loses faith. The way to improve our dramatic art is to reform the economics of our theatre business. We should produce fewer plays, and better ones. We should seek by scientific investigation to determine just how many theatres our cities can support, and how many weeks in the year they may legitimately be expected to support them. Having thus determined the real demand for plays that comes from the theatre-going population, the managers should then bestir themselves to secure sufficient good plays to satisfy that demand. That, surely, is the limit of sound and legitimate business. The arbitrary creation of a further, false demand, and the feverish grasping at a fictitious supply, are evidences of unsound economic methods, which are certain, in the long run, to fail.

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