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MORE PORTMANTEAU PLAYS
Author of Portmanteau Plays
Edited, and with an Introduction by
EDWARD HALE BIERSTADT
STEWART & KIDD COMPANY
STEWART &. KIDD DRAMATIC SERIES
The Portmanteau Plays
By Stuart Walker
Edited and with an Introduction by
Edward Hale Bierstadt
Vol. 1—Portmanteau Plays
Six Who Pass While the Lintels Boil
Vol. 2—More Portmanteau Plays
The Lady of the Weeping Willow Tree
The Very Naked Boy
Jonathan Makes a Wish
Vol. 3—Portmanteau Adaptations
Gammer Gurton’s Needle
The Birthday of the Infanta
Each of the above three volumes handsomely bound and illustrated. Per volume net $1.75
STEWART & KIDD CO., PUBLISHERS
Stuart Walker with the Working Model of His Portmanteau Theatre Frontispiece
The Lady of the Weeping Willow Tree, Act III 34
The Lady of the Weeping Willow Tree, Act III 63
The Very Naked Boy 80
Jonathan Makes a Wish, Act I 130
Jonathan Makes a Wish, Act II 149
During the period which has elapsed between the publication of Portmanteau Plays, and that of the present volume our country entered upon the greatest war in history, and emerged victorious. It is far too early to estimate what effect that war has had or may have upon all art in general, and upon the dramatic and theatric arts in particular, but there is every indication that the curtain is about to rise on the great romantic revival which we have watched and waited for, and of which Stuart Walker has been one of the major prophets.
During the actual period of the war many of the creative and interpretative artists of the theater were engaged either directly in army work or in one of its auxiliary branches. It is amusing to recall that the present writer met Schuyler Ladd serving as Mess Sergeant for a Base Hospital in France, Alexander Wollcott, late dramatic critic of the New York Times, attached to the Stars and Stripes in Paris, and Douglas Stuart, the London producer, in an English hospital at Etretat, the while he himself was serving as an enlisted man on the staff of the same hospital. These are minor instances, but when they have been multiplied several hundred times one begins to see how closely the actor, the critic, and the producer were involved in the struggle. Again the problem of providing proper entertainment for the troops was, and still is, a serious one. In the great number of cases it seems highly probable that the entertainment along such lines done by the men themselves was far more effective than that provided by outside organizations. More than once, however, it appeared to the writer that here was a field especially suited to the Portmanteau Theater and to its repertory. The question of transportation, always a crucial point with such a venture, was no more difficult than that presented by many companies already in the field, and doing immensely inferior work. My return to America put me in possession of the facts of the matter, and without desiring in any way to cast blame, much less to indict, or to emphasize unduly a relatively unimportant point, it seems only fitting that there should be included in this record the reasons for what has seemed to many of us a lost opportunity. They are at least much more brief than the apologia which precedes them.
The Portmanteau Theater, its repertory of forty-eight plays, and its trained company, was offered for war purposes under the following conditions: no royalty was to be paid for any of the plays, no salary was to be paid Mr. Walker; the company was to go wherever sent, whether in or out of shell fire, in France or in England; the only stipulation being that the members of the company should be remunerated at the same rate paid an enlisted man in the United States army, and that the principal members should receive the pay of subalterns. On the whole an arrangement so generous that it is almost absurd. To this offer the Y. M. C. A. turned a deaf ear. Their attention was concentrated on vaudeville at the moment, and with one hand they covered their eyes while with the other they clutched their purse strings. The War Camp Community Service could see no way in which the Theater could function for the men either at home or abroad. The Portmanteau was, in a word, too “high-brow” a venture for them. The reader is referred to the Appendix of this volume showing the repertory in use at that time. Another official contented himself with the statement that the problem of transportation involved rendered the project impracticable. The matter is too lengthy to discuss here, but the writer, who was able to observe the situation at first hand, knows this to be an error. The navy then asked for plans and estimates so that a number of Portmanteau Theaters might be constructed aboard the ships. Mr. Walker offered to put all his patents at the complete disposal of the Navy Department, and himself was ready to draw plans and make suggestions. The navy approved the idea, and with sublime assurance requested Mr. Walker to proceed with the work of construction—at his own expense. It was impossible; the money could not be afforded, and the venture was abandoned. It is therefore very evident that there was an opportunity, and that that opportunity was lost; but it was not the Portmanteau which lost it. At any rate we are left free to take up the history of Mr. Walker’s theater and his plays at the point where we left off in the first book of the series.
The close of the highly successful season at the Princess Theater in New York, the winter of 1915-1916, was followed by twelve weeks on the road, three of which were spent in Chicago, and then by thirteen weeks in Indianapolis. It was in this last city that the production of the adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s book, “Seventeen,” changed all plans by its instant popularity. On the way East, a stop was made in Chicago, and before that city had time to do much more than voice its enthusiasm, the company left for New York. During the fall of 1917 Seventeen was played regularly, with the addition of some special performances of the repertory. Seventeen was played in New York for two hundred and fifty-eight performances (Chicago had already had one hundred), and the special performances of The Book of Job were renewed in the spring. It was during the next fall, that of 1918, that a second Seventeen company was sent out on the road. That company is still out, the total playing time for the work since its production being (April, 1919) just one hundred and four weeks. The next summer, 1918, included a repertory season of thirteen weeks, again at Indianapolis, and four in Cincinnati, while the following winter, just past, chimed ten weeks of repertory at the Punch and Judy Theater in New York. To sum up in brief then—Mr. Walker has, beginning in the spring of 1916 and ending in the spring of 1919, played seventy-six weeks of repertory, in which he has produced forty-eight plays. This does not include the Seventeen run which, as I have said, totals one hundred and four weeks to date. It is safe to claim that this represents as successful repertory work as has been done in the United States so far. We shall, however, return to that presently.
In the fall of 1917, so important to the Portmanteau company, a change of management was instituted, by which the following staff came into control: Stage Director—Gregory Kelly: Stage Manager—Morgan Farley: Musical Director—Michel Bernstein: Manager—Harold Holstein: Press Representative—Alta May Coleman: Treasurer—Walter Herzbrun. The changes were excellent, and were thoroughly justified in their results. An arrangement was made with the Shuberts, whereby booking was greatly facilitated, and with its structure thus reinforced, the Theater was in an excellent position to “carry on.”
It may be remembered by those who read the first book of the Portmanteau Series that in my introduction I placed the greater portion of my emphasis on the theatrical side; that is, the Portmanteau as a portable theater rather than as a repertory company. It is my intention here to reverse the process, and this for two reasons. First: Mr. Walker has in the last two years by no means confined himself to the Portmanteau stage. The recent run at the Punch and Judy Theater in New York was upon a full size stage, and this was not at all an exception. The Portmanteau was, and is, an idea, but that idea has no very definite connection with repertory as such. There is no longer the need, in this particular instance, that there once was, for the invariable use of the Portmanteau, except as convenience requires. At the very beginning, when the company often played for private persons, the portable stage was indispensable. But so thoroughly did the Portmanteau idea justify itself that from being a crutch it grew into a handy staff, always valuable, but no longer essential. All that has been said of it, and of its possibilities, is quite as true today as ever it was, but now having proved his original thesis, if so it may be called, Mr. Walker may well be content to work out the future gradually and in his own way. Second: the repertory idea is certainly of infinitely more importance than any theatrical device or contrivance, however interesting and valuable such a departure may be in itself. As to any difference in the acting necessitated by the change from a small to a large stage that amounts to little. It is entirely a difference in quality, an ability to temper the interpretation to the surroundings, and as such would apply as readily to the staging and setting of a play as to the acting itself. On a large stage one might take three steps to convey an impression where on a small stage one step would produce the same effect. An arch or pylon would obviously have to be of greater proportions on a large stage than on a small one. Yet in both these instances the ultimate effect is precisely the same. Let us turn then to a consideration of the Portmanteau, not as a theater, but as a repertory company.
There is certainly no space here, and just as certainly no necessity, for dwelling long upon the prime importance of repertory. Several excellent books have been written on that absorbing subject, and we may surely take for granted that which we know beyond all doubt to be the truth, namely, that repertory as opposed to the “long run” and to the “star” system is the ultimate solution of a most vexatious and perplexing problem—how to change the modern theater from an industry to an art. The disadvantages of the present mode of procedure are too evident to call for recapitulation; witness the results obtained. On the other hand there can be no question that there is a practicable and simple panacea in repertory; see what has been done by the Abbey company in Dublin, by Miss Horniman’s players in Manchester, by the Scottish Repertory Theater, on a smaller scale, in Glasgow, by John Drinkwater’s repertory theater in Birmingham, concerning which I have, unfortunately, no exact data, but which I understand is doing remarkable work with distinct success, and by the Portmanteau company in the United States. It would be well also to include Charles Frohman’s season at the Duke of York’s Repertory Theater in London; in fact the inclusion of this seventeen weeks’ season would be inevitable. Where the experiment has failed it has failed for reasons which did not, in any way, shape or manner, invalidate the principle at stake. Thus, to cite the great example on our own side of the water, the New Theater was doomed to failure from the very start in the fact that it was born crippled. It may be restated to advantage, just here, that from the spring of 1916 to the spring of 1919, a period of three years, Mr. Walker has produced forty-eight plays, has given seventy-six weeks of repertory, and has had a nearly unbroken run of one hundred and four weeks with one play which has been commercially successful beyond the others. Of the forty-eight plays produced during this time eighteen had never been seen before on any stage; four were entirely new to America (except for a possible itinerant amateur performance); and twenty-six were revivals, modern, semi-modern, and classical. It is my belief that this record will take a creditable position in the history of American repertory. Abroad, however, its place is less secure, but even here the Portmanteau is by no means snowed under.
In the other great English speaking country there are four outstanding examples of repertory work, as has already been stated. On the Continent the situation is entirely different; there is no “problem” there, for the repertory theater has long been an established fact. France, in the Comedié-Française, and Germany, in several of her theaters before the war, merely provide us with a criterion. In Great Britain, however, and in America, we are in the process of building and adjusting, so that the examples of one will reasonably affect the other. At the risk of being misunderstood we shall pause long enough to call attention to the Irving Place Theatre, of New York, a German house supporting German plays, and attended very largely by a German clientele, but notwithstanding all this a repertory theater of standing, and of some distinction, from which we might learn several useful lessons. However, it is with the Anglo-American stage that we have to do at the moment.
Doubtless, first in importance comes the Abbey Theater Company of Dublin. From December, 1905, to December, 1912, there were produced at the Abbey Theater (I am unfortunately unable to include the several important tours made) seventy-four plays, of which seven were translations. Of the rest but few were revivals, as the history of the Irish literary movement will show. They were plays written especially for the theater, for particular audiences, and to achieve definite purpose as propaganda. Moreover, when the Abbey was tottering on the brink of failure, Miss Horniman came to the rescue with a substantial subsidy which enabled the theater not only to proceed, but finally to establish itself on a sound running basis. Mr. Walker’s company has had to fight its own way from the very start.
In Manchester, Miss Horniman’s own repertory company at the Midland Theater and finally at the Gaiety has been distinctly and brilliantly successful. In a period of a little more than two years there were produced fifty-five plays; twenty-eight new, seventeen revivals of modern English plays, five modern translations, and five classics. This is a repertory as well balanced as it is wide. In 1910, however, there was inaugurated the practise of producing each play for a run of one week, so that from that time on the theater was open to the criticism of being not a repertory in the fullest sense of the term, but a short run theater. But for that matter, I do not think that there is a repertory theater either in England or in America which fulfills the ideal conditions set down by William Archer who had in mind, as he wrote, the repertory theater of the Continent.
“When we speak of a repertory, we mean a number of plays always ready for performance, with nothing more than a ‘run through’ rehearsal, which, therefore, can be, and are, acted in such alternation that three, four or five different plays may be given in the course of a week. New plays are from time to time added to the repertory, and those of them which succeed may be performed fifty, seventy, a hundred times, or even more, in the course of one season; but no play is ever performed more than two or three times in uninterrupted succession.”
This applies exactly to the Comedié-Française, which, in the year 1909, presented one hundred and fifteen plays, eighteen of which were performed for the first time, the remainder being a part of the regular body of the repertory of that theater. In the first decade of the present century there were no less than two hundred and eighty-two plays added to the repertory of the Comedié. It may be of service to remember, however, that the Comedié-Française was established by royal decree in 1680. If the Globe Theater of Shakespeare’s day had lived and prospered up to the present we might have an example to match that of France.