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- Nonsenseorship - 20/23 -
reason) that it will be corrupt, that it will work foolishly, and that, having taken and relished an inch, it will take an ell.
He is the more uneasy because he realizes that the theatre presents a special incitement and a special problem--a problem altogether different from that presented by the bookstall, for instance. The play, once produced, is open to all the world. It may have been written with the thought that it would amuse Franklin P. Adams, but it is attended (in a body) by the Unintelligentsia. It may have been heavily seasoned in the hope that it would jounce the rough boy of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken-and lo, there in the third row on the aisle, is Dr. Frank Crane, being made visibly ill by it. Your playwright may write a piece to touch the memories and stir the hearts of elderly sinners, but he has to face the fact that the girls from Miss Spence's school may come fluttering to it, row on row.
On his desk is a seductive two-volume assemblage of "Poetica Erotica," edited by T. R. Smith, the antiquarian. It is a book which, if flaunted, would agitate the Postmaster General, stir up the Grand Jury, and make the Society for the Suppression of Vice call a special mass-meeting. It is managed as a commercial article by a system of furtive, semi-private sales which probably enhance its value as a source of revenue and yet shut the mouth of the heirs of Anthony Comstock. A folder announces that the juicy Satyr icon of Petronius Arbiter will shortly issue from the same presses. And so on, endlessly. It is a neat arrangement but one which cannot be imitated by the playwright. When he wants to be naughty, he must make up his mind to being naughty right out on the street-corner where every one can see him.
And though, in the moments when he is disposed to temporize, he sometimes thinks that suspect plays might, like saucy novels, be first inspected in manuscript, he knows full well that no such tactics are really feasible in the theatre. Your publisher, inwardly hot with resentment, may nevertheless take the occasional precaution of showing the script of a thin-ice book to the authorities--even to the self-constituted ones--thereby forestalling prosecution by agreeing to delete in advance such phrases and incidents as seem likely to agitate those authorities unduly. But the flavor and significance of a play depends too much on the manner of its performance and cannot be clearly forecast prior to that performance any more than the hue of a goblet can be guessed before the wine is poured. I can testify to that--I, who in my time, have seen players make a minx out of Ophelia, a mild-mannered mouse out of Katherine, an honest woman out of Lady Macbeth and a benevolent old gentleman out of Shylock. I have seen French players cast as the servants of Petruchio invade "The Taming of the Shrew" with a comic pantomime in which they fought for their turns at the keyhole of Petruchio's bedroom wherein Kate was being subjected to a little off-stage taming. It would have amused Shakespeare immoderately, I imagine, and certainly it would have surprised him. Until his piece is spoken, even the author cannot tell--and thereafter, from night to night, he cannot be sure.
That is why there is the quality of an eternal fable in the pathetic old tale of the stagehand who had always felt that, if chance would ever give him even the smallest of rôles, he would show these actors where their shortcomings were. He would not drone out even the least important and most perfunctory of speeches. Not he. Into every syllable he would pour real meaning, real conviction. At last, after twenty years of yearning from the wings, chance did rush him on as an understudy. Unfortunately, he was assigned to the role of the page in "King John," who must march into the throne-room and announce the approach of Philip the Bastard.
So, it seems apparent that any real supervision of the theatre must function with relation to produced plays and cannot deal with mere unembodied and undetermined manuscripts.
Our playwright's suspicion that such supervision, if managed by a politically appointed censor, would work foolishly, are justified by all he has heard of such functionaries as they have worked in other fields and in other lands. This was true of the gag which the doughty Brieux finally pried off the mouth of the French playwright. It has certainly been true of the mild and intermittent discipline to which the remote and slightly puzzled Lord Chamberlain has subjected the English dramatists. Indeed, when their mutinous mutterings finally jogged Parliament into inspecting his activities, the Lord Chamberlain was somewhat taken aback by the tactics of Shaw, who, instead of hissing him for forbidding public performances of certain Shaw and Ibsen plays, derided and denounced him instead for the plays he had _not_ suppressed. And indeed, for every play which the Lord Chamberlain has suppressed, the old playgoer of London could point to five which, had he been more intelligent, he might more reasonably have suppressed in its place.
But after all those scuffles on the Strand do seem part of the strange customs of a fusty-dusty never-never land. So our American playwright turns, instead, to the purifications effected nearer home. He looks apprehensively into the matter of the movies. As an occasional scenario writer, he has been instructed by bulletins sent out for his guidance, little watch-your-step leaflets which list the alterations ordered in earlier pictures by the august Motion Picture Commission of the State of New York. Most of them are fussy little disapprovals of language used in the titles. You mustn't say: "I shall kill Lester Crope." Better say: "I shall destroy the false Lester Crope" or something like that. You mustn't say "roué." You mustn't say: "I don't like that rich old roué hanging around you." Better say: "I don't like that rich old sport." And when, in a moment of self-indulgence, a title-writer allowed himself the luxury of writing "In a moment of madness, I wronged a woman," the Censor seems to have turned scarlet and issued the following order: "Substitute for 'wronged' the word 'offended' or something similar."
"Or something similar." Somehow, that seems to recall an old "Spanish for Beginners" textbook which bade me not bother with the "tutoyer" business as it would not be needed during my travels in Spain, unless I married there "or something similar."
At all events, no playwright can be scoffed at as an alarmist who ventures to fear that a censorship of the drama will, in practice, be foolish. At the thought of such frivolous and fatuous blue-pencillings of his next drama (which is to be his master-piece, by the way) our playwright becomes profoundly depressed and every time he goes out to dinner or finds himself with a small, cornered audience at the club, he winds up the talk on this bugaboo of his.
Out of the resulting prattle, two widespread impressions always come to the top, two familiar comments on the subject which, whenever questionable plays are mentioned, seem to emerge as regularly and as automatically as does the applause which follows the rendition of Dixie by any restaurant orchestra in New York. Both comments are absurd.
One comes from the man who can be counted on to say: "They tell me that show at the Eltinge--What's it called? 'Tickling Tottie's Tummy?'--well, they say it's pretty raw. Certainly does beat all how there are some men who just have to see a show soon's they hear it's smutty. I can't understand it."
This might be called the Comment Ingenuous. A man who never fails to edge into any group whence the bent head and the hoarse chuckle tells him that a shady story is on, a man who would have to think hard to name a friend of his to whom he would not rush with the latest scandalous anecdote brought in by the drummers from Utica--such a man will, nevertheless, express a pious surprise when the crowds flock to see the latest Hopwood farce just because it is advertised as indecorous. It is not known why he is surprised.
Or, if he is not surprised, then he falls over backward and makes the Comment Cynical. When he hears that "Under Betty's Bolster" is making a fortune while "The Grey Iconoclast" is playing to empty benches next door, he gives a sardonic little laugh (which he reserves for just such occasions) and says: "Of course. You might have known. Old Channing Pollock was right when he said: 'Nothing risqué, nothing gained.' Don't the smutty shows always make money? Doesn't the public invariably stampede to the most bedridden plays? Isn't the pornographic play the most valuable of all theatrical properties?"
To which rhetorical questions, the answer in each case, as it happens, is "No." The blush is not, of course, a bad sign in the box-office. But the chuckle of recognition is a better one. So is the glow of sentiment. So is the tear of sympathy. The smutty and the scandalous have a smaller and less active market than homely humor, for instance, or melodramatic excitement or pretty sentiment. When "Aphrodite" was brought here from Paris, it was, for various reasons, impossible to recapture for the translated dramatization the flavor of abnormal eroticism which lent the book a certain phosphorescent glow at home. So its producers relied on lots and lots of nudity to give it réclame here. At this the Hearst papers did some rather pointed blushing and the next morning, there was a grand scrimmage at the box-office and seats were hawked about for grotesque prices. Whereupon the Comment Cynical could be heard on all sides. But when at the end of the season or so later, "Aphrodite" was withdrawn with a shortage of a hundred and ninety thousand dollars or so on its books, the Cynics were too engrossed with some other play to mention the fact. To be sure that shortage was more than made up next season on the road, but it ought to be mentioned that "Aphrodite" knew the indignity of many and many an empty row in New York.
The great fortunes, as a matter of fact, are made with plays like "Peg o' My Heart" and "The First Year," both as pure as the driven snow. It is true that Avery Hopwood has grown rich on his royalties. But not so rich as Winchell Smith, who has dealt exclusively with sweetness and light. Also those who laugh most caustically over the Hopwood estate usually find it convenient to ignore the fact that the greatest single contribution to it has been made by "The Bat," at which Dr. Straton might conceivably faint from excitement but at which he would have to work pretty hard to do any blushing.
So much for the familiar catch-words and their validity. A little discouraged by the fatuity of all lay discussion, our playwright may be pictured as retreating to the clubrooms of the American Dramatists and there finding his fellow-craftsmen all busy as bees on scenarios overflowing with not particularly original sin. They are turning them out hurriedly with an "After-me-the-deluge" gleam in their haunted eyes. Some such despairing courtship of disaster may be needed to explain the jostling procession of harlots which marked the American Drama in the season of 1921-1922. An unprecedentedly large percentage of the heroines had either just been ruined (or were just about to be ruined) as the first curtain rose. Also the plays wallowed in a defiant squalor of language which, five years before, would have called out the reserves.
The privilege to indulge in such didos is not, as a matter of fact, especially dear to them. They do not really prize unduly the right to use the word "slut" once in every act. They can even bear up whenever a law forbids disrobing on the stage. They know that most pruriency in the theatre derives from the old frustrations sealed up and festering in the mind of the onlooker who detects it. They suspect, from what little reading they have managed in the psychology of outlets, that
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