THE ENEMIES OF THE THEATRECategory: Culture
I could venture to say, above, that in some respects we are the most dramatic people left on earth, because I realise only too well how many obstacles our Theatre is compelled to face. Only a people with a deep instinctive feeling for dramatic art would be inclined to challenge such obstacles. As individuals we may have this need for drama, but our society is not Theatre-minded.
The Theatre has kept its place in the hearts of the people, but not in the community. The two dominating classes in the nineteenth century were the landed gentry and the new-rich manufacturing class of the Midlands and the North. The latter did not care about the Theatre, often because they had puritanical prejudices against it. The landed gentry liked a country, house life and sport, and generally thought of the stage as a show of pretty women, an attitude of mind that still persists in the West End. A society dominated by these two types of mind would not be likely to give the Theatre much official patronage. It would never occur to such persons that London ought to have theatres as far removed from commercial speculation as the British Museum is. There might be occasional royal visits or command performances at Windsor; an Irving might be given a knighthood; but there would be a strong feeling in the House of Commons, which always had its share of Puritans, that the State could hardly be expected to recognise the existence of the Theatre. Moreover, English politicians have usually neither the time nor the inclination to do much serious playgoing. It is doubtful if even now many Labour members realise how shamefully this communal art, for which we have a native genius, has been neglected, abused and prostituted, and how much we are missing by not giving it its rightful place in our society.
Among those enemies here must be reckoned now a very large section of our Press, both London and provincial, which gives the minimum space and serious attention to the drama. At least two-thirds of our attempts at dramatic criticism are no longer even honest reporting, show no signs of taste, sensitiveness, or technical knowledge, and are well below the level of the average member of the audience. Some newspapers are clearly bent on challenging the very existence of the serious Theatre, not only do not help but deliberately hinder the work of local enthusiasts, and obviously hope that their readers will prefer to accept whatever Hollywood chooses to send them. Among other enemies of the Theatre, must be reckoned those types who see in theatrical management and speculation an enticing Monte Carlo atmosphere of easy money, pretty women, and bright lights.
My objection to most commercial managers is not that they want a reasonable return on their capital, but that they insist upon moulding the Theatre to their own dreary taste and outlook. The fact is, a man cannot produce plays as if he were merely manufacturing hairpins. This is a very personal business. And he who plays the piper likes to call the tune; indeed, after a time he insists upon it, and piper-players are apt to enjoy very poor tunes. A man with a vulgar mind will insist upon offering the public rapid and vulgar productions, and in doing so he may claim the services of players who could be doing good work elsewhere, and may occupy playhouses that are in urgent demand. And it should be remembered that public taste is not something fixed and unalterable; it can be manipulated, raised, and depressed to some extent; and if people want to go to the theatre, a man who has favourite players under contract and is able to buy or rent good playhouses will be able for some time to indulge his own bad taste while making rather than losing his money. Managers of this kind, who like easy flashy successes and resent the formidable demands made by the art of drama, would be better employed in variety and cabaret entertainment, from which most of them came, and tend merely to be a nuisance in the legitimate field.
Large numbers of playgoers, both in London and the provinces, must be classed as enemies of good Theatre. The half-witted mobs in provincial cities visit theatres only to see film stars in the flesh. The presence of one or two names in a cast can add a thousand pounds a week to the returns in some of the larger theatres. And this nonsense is having a very bad influence on casting. If a play is to be toured before opening in London, then an indifferent young actress with a film reputation will probably be given a leading part in preference to a really excellent actress who does not happen to have worked in films.
Among the enemies of the Theatre we must still include the British Government, which, with the hearty approval of all parties, does not care whether the Theatre lives or dies so long as it pays the ferocious tax imposed upon it. True, there is now a small entry on the credit side. The Arts Council receives an annual grant from the Treasury. But very little of this money is spent on raising the artistic level of stage production, for most of it goes on subsidising tours to small towns and rural districts; so that the money is used for a social rather than a purely artistic purpose.
On the other hand, there is nothing to prevent the theatre-owner from demanding a higher rent, a greater proportion of the gross takings. This has already happened, and if it is allowed to continue happening, then it will pay the theatre-owners - and nobody else- to finance these tax-free non-profit companies. Thus an arrangement originally intended to encourage purely artistic enterprise may be twisted to add to unearned profits and to tighten the control of the drama by speculators in theatrical property. A bad state of affairs.
When we look at the opposite page in the ledger, we see a very different picture. Where we saw thousands on the credit side we now see millions on the debit side. What the Treasury gives the Theatre is a mere trifle compared with what the Treasury takes out of the Theatre. The State is really the greatest shareholder in all our theatrical enterprises, and a shareholder who invests nothing, takes no interest in what is being created, but yet contrives to grab between a third and a quarter of all the takings at the box office. Even when everybody else concerned is losing money, the Treasury is still taking its fat cut. The Treasury, which gains whoever else loses, takes the eggs without feeding the goose. It is not even taxing profits, perhaps with the object of easing worthy losses. It is simply taxing the act of playgoing and any attempt at theatrical enterprise. What we have here is the community declaring war upon its own amenities and a great communal art.
From: Theatre Outlook by J. B. Priestley