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These people do not pretend to think the present condition of the English drama altogether a healthy one. They only deny that the founding of an endowed theatre would be the way to improve it.
On the contrary, they maintain that such an institution would be actually injurious. All endowments of art, in their opinion, whether by the State or the great, are necessarily demoralising. Art that is to be self-respecting must be self-supporting. Doles and subventions weaken its fibre, and, by shielding it from the bracing influences of free and open competition, inevitably foster feeble and anæmio work. This, for some reason or other, they believe to be preeminently the case in England, and especially in the English theatre. Other nations, they admit, contrive to have national theatres, and yet to produce a drama of considerable merit. In England such a thing would be impossible. Endowments are “contrary to the genius of the English people”—whatever that may mean. It is private enterprise that has made England great, and it is private enterprise alone that can make English drama great.
To this all one can reply is that it does not seem to be having that effect at present. Competition and the free play of economic forces may be the ideal conditions for drama. They may be the most moral and the most English and generally the most inspiring to contemplate. But they do not seem to be producing great plays. Yet the people who hold this view as to endowments are obviously quite sincere in their contention, and very much in earnest in it; for only the other day, when Sir John Hare, at a banquet given in his honour, ventured to express his approval of the idea of an endowed theatre for this country, he was taken quite sharply to task by a newspaper which devotes a good deal of its space to theatrical matters, and roundly told that his attitude contrasted most unfavourably with that of Sir Charles Wyndham, who had recently written a letter to the Press in the opposite sense.
He was informed that there was something quite shocking about the suggestion that our noble British stage should compromise its independence by soliciting or accepting a dole. That “ patrons " had always been the destruction of any art with which they had been permitted to meddle, and that Sir John had only to read history to discover the fact.
I am bound to say that my reading of history leads me to the opposite conclusion. There have been good "patrons" and bad “patrons," and the institution of “ patronage " has sometimes been galling to the pride of individual artists, and occasionally been bad for their art. But the poems of Virgil seem to show that the existence of a Mæcenas is not incompatible with the production of great poetry, while, more recently, the case of Wagner is evidence that the purse and the favour of a King may be useful in the production of great opera.
But there are, of course, innumerable instances to the same effect, and the whole contention that patrons have always, or even usually, been bad for art is too childish to bear examination. To argue from it, therefore, that an endowment would necessarily
be bad for the English theatre, and that the drama can only flourish so long as it is “independent," is nonsense. Moreover, it may be pointed out that all this talk of “independence” with regard to art is mere moonshine. Art, and especially dramatic art, never is and never can be “independent in any real sense. The drama depends, and must always depend, upon its audiences, upon its “patrons in fact as our actor-managers are wont to style them quite accurately, in their speeches on first nights. And the only difference between the commercial theatre and the endowed theatre is that whereas the latter depends for its existence on one patron, the former depends upon many.
And even this difference is more apparent than real. In the last resort, it is to the public—that is, to the general mass of its audiences that all drama must look for recognition, whether it be Charley's Aunt or the most ambitious masterpiece that ever played to empty benches. No patron can make a play independent of the public in the last resort. Al he can do is to provide the necessary means to enable it to be adequately produced, and so given a chance to show what it is worth. If it is good, the public in time will discover the fact and go to see it. If it is bad they will stay away. In either case their verdict will be the final one. All that the patron can do is to render it possible for that verdict to be given.
But, it will be said, if the public remain the final judges, of what use
With an endowed theatre the case is different. Even at
endowed theatre the fate of a play will depend in the end on the verdict of the public, but here it will be on the public's deliberate and considered judgment, not upon its momentary whim. The endowed theatre puts up a play for a few performances. It is not necessary that it should create an immediate furore and fill the theatre for a year. All that is required is that it should have a success with the more critical public who form its early audiences. If they like it, the piece goes into the general repertoire and is revived from time to time as that critical approval spreads to wider circles and the demand for further performances makes itself heard among the general public. This is the only way in which the best work ever can succeed on the stage. Good plays, as a rule, do not make an immediate appeal to large and uncritical audiences. Good art of any kind does not do so. Good plays, especially if they are at all original in technique or in subject matter, begin by appeal. ing to the critical few. If they have any real artistic merit, and are not merely interesting because of their novelty or eccentricity, they will gradually win their way with a wider circle of admirers, until at last even the general public recognises their value, and clamours for admission. But at first, recognition comes, and can only come, from the few.
Such plays cannot be produced in the London theatre of to-day. Managers admit the fact. They are under no illusions as to the quality of their wares. They freely own that the plays they reject are often far better than the plays they accept. But what are they to do? They have their rent to pay and their rates and taxes and their establishment charges. They are practical men, and they cannot produce plays at a loss.
It is to provide a way out of this impasse that I (and Sir John Hare) want a patron for the theatre. Nor is there anything more intrinsically ignoble about a theatre's depending upon one patron than upon many. If Mr. Pinero does not writhe at the thought that His House in Order could never have been produced but for the shillings and the half-crowns and the half-guineas of the St. James's audiences, why should I and Sir John be expected to feel uncomfortable because another sort of drama cannot be produced unless Smith or Brown furnishes a hundred thousand or so towards providing a home for it? Indeed, “ dependence" upon a single patron may well be less demoralising for the dramatist than “ dependence upon the mass of the playgoing public. For, if the patron be a man of taste and artistic sympathies--nay, if he be merely a man of generous instincts who desires to use some portion of his wealth for the benefit of his kind-his “patronage
may easily be a wholesomer influence on the drama than that of the ordinary rabble of playgoers who demand nothing better from the theatre than a new
sensation," and are quite unmoved by any artistic or altruistic considerations whatsoever.
It may be admitted, then, that the theory that endowments are
necessarily injurious to art is a fallacious one. But there may still be people who ask why the theatre in particular should stand in need of an endowment, and why, as is claimed, it stands more in need of endowment to-day than ever before. The other arts contrive to get along in England without endowments. Novelists do not go about saying that there will be no good novels until the State comes to the assistance of the publisher. Nor do poets declare that it is quite impossible to produce good poetry unless you are the Laureate. Quite the contrary. Why should dramatists be in a different case? Briefly, because in no other art is there that necessity for immediate success which I have spoken of as essential in the case of a modern play. I dealt with this point at some length a few weeks ago in a letter to The Times. I will here repeat more concisely the facts contained in that letter.
Roughly speaking, on the system that prevails in the ordinary
commercial " theatre in London at present a play must run a hundred nights to full or practically full houses, or the management makes a loss. Let us see what this means. The seating capacity of the average West-end theatre may be reckoned at eight hundred to a thousand people. Taking the lower figure, this means that a play, if it is not to be run at a loss, must attract some eighty thousand people in the first three months of its existence, and that a prudent manager must be able to count on its attracting that number before he decides to put it up. There is, of course, no certainty in theatrical matters. No one can ever be sure whether a play will attract or not. The manager can but limit his risk as far as possible and trust to luck. These figures are,
of course, only approximate. Theatres vary considerably in size. Some hold more than the numbers I have stated, some less, and the financial risks of a manager vary also according as his theatre is or is not extravagantly rented. Most theatres are held by their present managers from sub-tenants at a rack-rental out of all proportion either to the rent that goes to the original landlord, or to the sum that would represent a fair return on the cost of the building and the value of the land. But, roughly, it may be said that the above are the conditions under which a manager has to decide whether he shall produce a play or not. This being so, how is it possible for him to produce plays for their artistic qualities ? Really good plays, as we have seen, take time to win recognition. Even when they are the work of authors of established reputation they do not attract eighty thousand people to a playhouse in the first three months of their existence. If they are the work of a new author there is not the remotest chance of their doing so. To produce such plays, therefore, in an ordinary West-end theatre on the long run system would be madness. Let us consider what would happen if the same conditions prevailed in the sister arts. Supposing it were necessary that 80,000 people should pay anything from a shilling to half a guinea for a good novel or a great poem
within three months of its publication in order that the publisher
That is why you can never tell with certainty from reading a play whether it is good or not, why you can never tell even at the final rehearsal. The audience is not there, and the audience must play its part if a play is to be a success.
If, therefore, the conditions of the London theatre of to-day bring it about that good plays cannot hope to get audiences (because they cannot hope to get produced at all), the result must inevitably be that good plays will not be written. This has actually happened to some extent already. And as the facts of the situation become more generally known, it will become so still more until the drama as an artform dies out in this country altogether.
It is, of course, possible to argue that this won't very much matter. Superior people make altogether too much fuss about “Art” which is really of extremely small importance. One kind of drama for practical purposes is as good ” as another. So long as plays are reasonably entertaining and reasonably decent there is no occasion to bother about anything else. This being so, to talk about the
need " for an endowed theatre or, indeed, for any theatre at all in this country—except, perhaps, a theatre of varieties—is ridiculous. In a sense no doubt this is true. Need is a relative term. Strictly speaking, all that a nation "needs" is food and drink and perhaps sanitation. Art of any kind is a luxury merely, and the commonsense person will tell you that he cares not a jot whether your plays are masterpieces like Macbeth, or balderdashlike
If, however, you are prepared to admit that there are other “needs " beyond the purely material ones, then it may be claimed, I think, that even art has its value for a nation, and that if plays