Baltimore Evening Sun (15 October 1913): 6.
Come, gents, let us be game! That is to say, let us give a public banquet to the Hon. William H. Anderson the night after the local option bill passes. I hereby nominate the Hon. Bob Crain for chairmam of the committee and the Hon. Waldo Newcomer for toastmaster. If anyone asks me, I shall be glad to sing a song.
The discussion of dramatic criticism lately started in the Letter Column by the Hon. Charles S. Ford is bringing forth some very interesting views, and I have been impressed, in particular, by the well-tempered and well-reasoned apologia of the Hon. John O. Lambdin, critic of The Evening Sun, but all of the disputants, I fear, are concerning themselves too much with the critic’s æsthetic functions and too little with his practical functions. I speak here, of course, not of the critic who writes books and serious review articles, not of the Hazlitt, the Brandes and the Schlegel, but of the critic who writes for a daily newspaper, and especially for a daily newspaper in the so-called provinces. What is the chief duty of this critic? Is it to preach an artistic theory, to hold up an ideal, to attempt a work of construction? Not at all. It is simply (and almost solely) to protect his clients against deliberate efforts to swindle them. In brief, his function is constabulary: he is a policeman before ever he is a critic.
The theatrical business, as it is practiced in the United States today, is frankly a thing of tricks, deceits and chicanaries. The mummeries of the stage itself have been carried over into the box office: the successful manager is quite as much a wearer of disguises as his chief actor. Much of this foolery, of course, is harmless and amusing: no one is robbed, nor even deceived by the sarerdotal makeup of David Belasco, or the ludicrous artistic pretensions of Charles Frohman, or the slugging and bellowing of humble imitators of Richard Mansfield. But in addition to this genial clowning, there is an organized and deliberate effort to get the public’s money by false representations, and it is the prime duty of the provincial critic to make his professional knowledge a barrier between this effort and its chosen victims.
I hope I do no injustice to any honest manager when I make this charge against the theatrical business. As a matter of fact, I know managers who deplore the reign of buncombe quite as much as any theatregoer deplores it and who strives manfully against it. But the competition of their less honorable rivals forces most of them to make some compromise with the habit, and so it is the rule rather than the exception to find that a manager’s announcements are unreliable. Once a company takes to “the road” the principles of fair trading and common frankness are suspended. The manager thinks it no offense to lie about its size and quality, to lie about the length of the play’s run in New York and to lie about its reception by the critics and the public. I am not referring here to the ordinary exaggerations of the seller–a trick made almost respectable by the ancient legal maxim of caveat emptor. What I am alluding to is studied deceit, deliberate misrepresentation. It is against this that the provincial critic must throw himself, and it is in that enterprise that he provokes the worst reprisals by managers.
No man who knows anything about theatrical affairs need be told that the New York imprimatur carried by the average play is bogus. Companies are kept in Broadway theatres at a heavy weekly loss in order that the provinces may be gulled later on with tales of long runs. Even when a success is genuine it is commonly “teased up,” as the artists say, by some modification of the same process. What is worse, this hand-made success, in the case of musical pieces, at least, is frequentiy at the expense of gentlemen who are not managers at all, but merely bankers for eminent ladies of the half world. In other words, the theatre is here reduced to the level of a sort of glorified brothel, and the provincial public, paying out its money to see honest and meritorious performers, is swindled and insulted by the absurd cavortings of shameless creatures.
Who is to speak out against this degradation of the stage, if not the newspaper critic? And who is to speak out against all the associated schemes for palming off brummagem stuff upon the public--the tricks of press agents, the multiplication of “original” companies, the cunning “editing” of reviews, the bribery of venal papers, the whole pitiful bag of chicaneries? To protest against such things is to strike a blow, not only for a deceived public, but also for all honest managers and self-respecting actors. There is no longer any protection for theatregoers in the character of the theatre they patronize, nor in the reputation of the local manager. The present booking system has made our leading theatres dumping places for anything and everything and turned the local manager into a mere janitor. An actor of the character of Otis Skinner or E. H. Sothern may be booked between an idiotic “sex” play played by second-rate buffoons and a filthy musical comedy. There is scarcely a “first-class” theatre in the whole United States to which an intelligent person may go in confidence week after week. Within a month after he sees the best that our stage has to offer he is practically certain to be disgusted by some witless nastiness, or driven out of the house by childish playwriting and barnstorming acting.
The provincial reviewer sweats through this tedious and repellant staff for the purpose of describing it accurately to his clients. His job, as I have said, is not that of a critic of the arts–it is seldom, indeed, anything of genuinely artistic quality is set before him--but that of a scout and flagman. The more impersonally his work is done, the better it is done. That is to say, he is safest when be confines himself to simple narrative and steers wholly clear of arguments and exhortation. The public, no doubt, would be interested to hear his æsthetic theories, but what it really demands of him is protection against deception. When he has told it that this play reveals an honest striving for merit and that the other one reveals nothing but a hot desire to rope in suckers, he has given a fair return for the money ge gets and fully justified his existence.
Boil your drinking water! Watch Bob come back! Kiss the Rum Demon good-by!
Daily record of my guzzling, for the appendix to the Hon. William H. Anderson’s forthcoming work on “Eminent Bibuli I Have Known”:
Tuesday. Two cups of coffee. Four small shells of malt liquor containing more than 3 per cent. but less then 6 per cent. of ethyl alcohol by volume. Two Bismarck herring.