Baltimore Evening Sun (14 February 1912): 6.
Discoursing, a week or so ago, upon the eternal conflict between the dramatic critic and the theatre manager, I pictured, with such eloquence that it loosed my own tears, the bitter woes of the latter. Forced, on the one hand, by the harsh barbarisms of the present booking system, to accept whatever stars and troupes the syndicate in New York chooses to inflict upon him, and compelled, on the other hand, to submit to the public criticism, not always favorable, of a person whom he must needs regard, for reasons to him sound and sufficient, as a bumptious and insufferable ignoramus, if not as a downright rascal, and to stand the occasional loss of trade ensuing, it is indeed no wonder that he sometimes runs amuck, calls the critic evil names and hires a literary scorpion to sting him to death.
I for one, don’t blame the fellow. When it is my turn, as an irregular critic of the drahma, to face his attack, I bear it with the best fortitude I can command. Even when, in the heat of invective, he lays it on a bit thick--i. e., when he proceeds from the lamentable fact to the dubious “fact,” and from the dubious “fact” to the unequivocal mendacity--even then I hold my natural rage. The only way he can do me serious damage is by convincing my employers that I am actually ignorant or corrupt, and to achieve that couviction he must also convince them that they themselves were credulous asses to hire me--a difficult business, it must be plain. So, with the cards unfairly in my favor, I can afford to be calm. What is more, it is my duty, as a just man, to give the manager all the latitude he wants, in order to introduce a certain color of equality into the combat.
But isn’t there some remedy for this dostressing condition of affairs? Wouldn’t it be possible, by amicable discussion, to arrive at some scheme of reviewing which would protect the manager’s property and feelings, on the one hand, and yet be fair to the critic’s readers and soothing to his professional vanity on the other? Alas, I am afraid that no such scheme exists. Time and time again I have talked it over with managers, with press agents (who are ordinarily much more intelligent than managers) and with fellow-reviewers, and every time the discussion has run aground upon an immovable fact. And that is the fact that the manager’s one object in life is to sell his goods, regardless of their quality, while the reviewer’s one object (conditioned, in the execution, of course, by human limitations) is to tell the truth. There you have two entirely different, and often directly antagonistic, motives, and there you have the secret of all the rows between managers and reviewers.
That it is extremely difficult to write a review of a play without, in some way or other, expressing an opinion of it is admitted even by the managers. And that it is natural for a reviewer, writing regularly, to fall into fixed habits of thought and expression, and so to maintain one or more general theories with a certain consistency--this they also admit. What they object to is the fact that the reviewer’s theories, in the long run, are apt to diverge considerably from their own--that, as his knowledge of the drama increases, his taste is apt to become fastidious--that his progress, supposing him to be reasonably intelligent, is practically certain to be in the direction of the notion that Pinero is a better dramatist than Charles Klein, that “Strife” is a better play than “Ben-Hur,” that Eleonora Duse is a better performer than Chauncey Olcott. Here the manager is sorely outraged, for he knows that Klein, “Ben-Hur” and Chauncey pay better than Pinero, “Strife” and Eleanora, and so he easily falls into the opinion that they are better, and that anyone who denies it is an ass.
Of the compromises commonly proposed but three show any color of practicability. One is the proposal that the critic adopt bodily the theory of the manager–that he admit “Ben-Hur” to be a better play than “Strife:--that he take frankly the box-office view. Another is the proposal that he give over criticism and confine himself to reporting--that his review be a mere description of the play, as impartial as he can make it, with an account of the manner in which the first-night audience received it. The third is the proposal that the critic confine himself entirely to pointing out merits--that he say nothing whatever about faults.
Three apparently feasible plans--and yet every one quickly goes to places on inspection. The proposal that the critic accept the manager’s opinion is merely a proposal that the manager become the critic--a sheer absurdity, for the manager’s opinion, compared to the critic’s, suffers from two disadvantages, the first being that the manager is always violently prejudiced in favor of his current play, regardless of its merit or even of its success, and the second being that the average critic is considerably more intelligent than the average manager. The manager, at best, is merely a glorified janitor; the critic, at worst, is a man who deals habitually with ideas. And so it is no wonder that the critic, by the mere effects of use, should acquire a more alert intelligence, or at least, a firmer grip upon the slight intelligence he has.
So much for the first plan. As for the second, it is wrecked upon the fact that, if it were ever put into effect, the manager would be the first to bawl for release. So long as the critic had tales of packed houses and riotous applause to tell, there would be no complaint. But the first time he honestly reported a. killing frost, sobs almost super-Mahonic in their piteousness would shake the town. The barbers, delicatessen dealers and other volunteer bill-stickers who throng certain Baltimore theatres on Monday nights are not hospitable to ideas. It is flubdub that they want: the good play commonly leaves them cold. Suppose the critics were to report that chill? Would the manager be content? Or would he yell “The play’s the thing!” I leave every sane man to answer for himself.
Now the third and last proposal–that only merits to be mentioned. To it two objections at once appear. The first is the objection that many of the plays offered in the local theatres, judged by any intelligible standard, have no merit at all. (I once saw one in which the sole virtue was the superb fit of the leading man’s pantaloons.) The other is the objection that, if only merits were mentioned and nothing were said of faults, then the critic would take the place of the press agent, and the value of his review to his readers--who are his true employers and whose confidence is his whole stock in trade--would become nil. Once he adopted that plan, they would believe him, in fact, no more than they now believe the press agent, and the printing of theatrical notices would become a sheer waste of space.
[The end of this pontifical stuff, I hope, tomorrow.]