Today pace rules the theatre. A play must have action, speed, rhythm; it must stand comparison with the talkies and with all the masterpieces of yesterday—or risk the contempt of the critics1 as next morning they yawn in the faces of their readers. But it was not always so. There was a time when The Admirable Crichton—recently yawned off the stage of the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York—was considered just too exciting. There were afternoons where matinee girls by the score waited aflutter to watch John Drew or William Faversham strut a not-too-crowded hour upon the boards. There were evenings when a whisper of Sudermann’s or a sigh by D’Annunzio could be heard around the world. There were nights that echoed to the slam of Nora’s door. The Gay Nineties, those days have been called. They were, however, anything but gay in the theatre. Men then looked to the playwright for a serious criticism of life.2 The man of letters, to use the words of Denis Diderot, was a high priest of ideas, called upon to elevate the minds of his generation. He must not make a motley of himself.
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- 1.Clyde Fitch once said: “The only man sure of favorable criticism in America is the dramatist on his way up or on his way down.”Google Scholar
- 2.A playwright, said W. S. Gilbert, becomes a dramatist in the same way that a cow becomes beef; by dying.Google Scholar
- 3.In our more expert opinion, Shaw is, of course, the only serious dramatist of the first rank produced by that too self-conscious age.Google Scholar
- 4.Dewing tells me that Booth was not, by our standards, a great or even an interesting actor. He overacted. He declaimed his lines. He maintained attitudes. He could not move easily and naturally about the stage. In Dewing’s opinion Belasco was the great theatre man of that day ... and Irving the greatest of the actors.Google Scholar
- 5.White later helped to organize Sargent’s School of Acting in New York, and for a time sat on the board.Google Scholar