21 June 2012

The Washington Square Players: Art for Art’s Sake (Part 1)

[Though the Washington Square Players isn’t an unknown troupe and its record is documented both in general theater history books and the pages of the press of its day, it’s never achieved the prominence of either its sister theater, the Provincetown Players, or the producing organization that was its successor, the Theatre Guild. The history of WSP has never been compiled into one volume the way Helen Deutsch and Stella Hanau’s The Provincetown: A Story of the Theatre has done for that company or Lawrence Langner’s The Magic Curtain did for the Theatre Guild. A few capsule accounts of the company have appeared lately, such as the brief paragraph in The Cambridge Guide to American Theatre and a few other similar reference works, but in order to get a comprehensive examination (or even a superficial overview) of the Players’ history, readers would have to piece it together themselves from scattered accounts and brief mentions, mostly in biographies and autobiographies of the personalities involved, and articles and reviews in contemporaneous New York City newspapers and, especially, the theater press. Not only are these sources dispersed widely across diverse research categories (and collections), but many of the periodicals, little of whose pertinent coverage is indexed or listed in bibliographies, aren’t commonly available even in large university libraries. My article, posted on ROT in two parts, attempts to draw together these widely-spread and disparate references into a coherent narrative and, by situating this into the political, cultural, and artistic milieu, to look at the history and accomplishments of the Washington Square Players as an outgrowth of its own time and a harbinger of the future.

[In addition, I’ve examined WSP’s history and record with the critical eye of the theater reviewer and the analytical instinct of the dramaturg in an attempt not only to document what the company did, but to understand why they did it and what the impact of their work was on the emerging new American theater. Though a more-or-less comprehensive account of the Washington Square Players’ plays and personalities can be patched together from existing sources, if the reader has access to some of the more esoteric and obscure ones and is willing to dig out the scattered bits and pieces, the analytical and evaluative aspect of this investigation isn’t available anywhere in published form.]

In the years before the First World War, when the century was less than a dozen years old, an upheaval that would have cultural and artistic repercussions across the country was taking place in an obscure corner of New York City. The social, artistic, and political forces came together in what became known as the bohemian life in Greenwich Village. Intellectuals of all stripes came to work or live in this community, recorded lawyer and amateur New York City historian Edmund T. Delaney, its distinct character “somewhat richer than other parts of the city,” and influenced “American literature, art and thinking wholly out of proportion to their numbers.”

The influence, across the gamut of culture and ideas, was made by a motley group including proponents of atheism, socialism, cubism, anarchism, free-thought, free-love, birth-control—“and women who bobbed their hair and smoked cigarettes.” As socialist journalist John Reed described it:

Inglorious Miltons by the score,
And Rodins, one to every floor.
In short, those unknown men of genius
Who dwell in third-floor-rears gangrenous,
Reft of their rightful heritage
By a commercial, soulless age.
Unwept, I might add—and unsung,
Insolent, but entirely young.

To be sure, Villagers included “crackpots or phonies,” but many were sincere artists and thinkers and, according to W. A. Swanberg, biographer of Village resident Theodore Dreiser, “most were conscious rebels . . . [in] revolt against mildewed American concepts and properties . . . .” This side of Village life was summed up by author and radical editor Max Eastman, in the words of his biographer William L. O’Neill, in what he dubbed the Innocent Rebellion:

All that was self-consciously new in American culture—the “new women,” the “new morality,” the “new art”—could be found there. On one level Greenwich Village was becoming a showcase of the cultural revolution, on another it led the movement, serving as headquarters to . . . the Innocent Rebellion.

All this creative activity set the stage for an influx of artists “ready to espouse all the new causes—individual freedom, free love, socialism, avant garde literature and futuristic painting.” Helen Deutsch and Stella Hanau, the historians of the Provincetown Players, pointed out that “with so many arts represented, drama was the natural meeting-ground, the inevitable medium of expression.” Much of what was exciting and new in European culture was allied to the theatre: the new playwriting of the likes of William Butler Yeats, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Harley Granville-Barker, James M. Barrie, George Bernard Shaw, Maurice Maeterlinck, Georges de Porto-Riche, and Paul Claudel; the “new stagecraft” of Adolphe Appia and Gordon Craig; innovative productions by directors like William Poel, André Antoine, Max Reinhardt, Alexander Tairov, Leopold Sulerzhitsky, Aurélien-Marie Lugné-Poë, and Jacques Copeau; and art theatres like Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, the Munich Art Theatre, the Moscow Art Theatre, and Paris’s Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier. Examples of these and other theatre work were known to the artists and intellectuals either from the Europeans’ visits to America or the Americans’ travels abroad. The new theatre art was in the air, but was not much practiced on America’s commercial stages. It would have been a most attractive outlet for the new ideas and artistic endeavors of the Village artists and thinkers.

Indeed, the theatre movement that sprung up in the Village during this time was populated by talented people from varied fields. Few were theatre professionals as the founders of these companies were slow to recruit artists who represented the same stick-in-the-mud attitudes, exemplified by the state of contemporary Broadway theatre, against which the companies were reacting. The professionals also certainly looked down on the amateurs and their impecunious troupes—until the successes started to attract critical acclaim. Then the croakers and doubters clamored to join them.

Among the participants were radical journalist John Reed, short-story writers Alice Brown and Susan Glaspell, lawyers Lawrence Langner (who specialized in patents) and Elmer Reizenstein (later, Elmer Rice), businessman Edward Goodman, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, novelist Floyd Dell, publishers Charles and Albert Boni, and sundry others. They amalgamated with the few professional actors, scenic artists, and playwrights and began a movement that started or influenced a number of interrelated theatre developments across America: the art theatre, the little theatre, Off-Broadway, and serious American playwriting.

For the moment, however, they were interested only in founding and operating their own theatre groups based on their artistic and social beliefs and a discontent with the available mainstream theatre. The first major group of this movement to establish itself independently in New York was the Washington Square Players, founded in 1914 as “the outgrowth of a little group that used to foregather in Washington Square, radicals, socialists, progressives, artists, writers and plain men and women . . . .” One of their regular gathering places was the Liberal Club at 133 MacDougal Street, “a Meeting Place for Those Interested in New Ideas.” The Club fostered discussion, openness, and “wine-and-talk parties” on Friday nights at a charge of twenty-five cents. Some occasions were far more boisterous, such as when the Club presented one-act plays written and performed by its members. This was the germ of the Washington Square Players.

The story of the founding of the Washington Square Players has variations, depending on who does the telling. Most agree on the significant details, though. As early as 1912 several artistically inclined intellectuals including Philip Moeller, an aspiring writer, and Edward Goodman used to meet at the Ethical Culture Society on Central Park West. The group read plays together on Sunday evenings, concentrating on modern European dramatists like J. M. Barrie and Maurice Maeterlinck and scripts of their own. Now and then, they would give a public performance. When the group advanced to works by August Strindberg and Arthur Schnitzler, the Society’s director commented discreetly, “I think you have outgrown us.” Moeller and Goodman moved their productions to the Socialist Press Club and, joined by Theresa Helburn and patent attorney Langner, also began reading plays by Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, and George Bernard Shaw at one another’s homes. A dinner at the Socialist Press Club a few years later introduced another stage-struck lawyer, Elmer Reizenstein, to the emergent Washington Square Players. As he recalled:

The dinner was chaired by Edward Goodman, general director of the enterprise. Others who were actively engaged were Lawrence Langner, Philip Moeller and Lee Simonson. It was a co-operative undertaking; actors, directors, scene-builders, stagehands, ushers were all amateurs. The opening performance, at a tiny playhouse in the East Fifties appropriately called the Bandbox, was a significant event in the history of the American theatre. In a sense, it sounded the first note of the movement that was to vitalize the American drama in the 1920s. The plays, while in the main not especially noteworthy, were in refreshing contrast to the stale, predigested fare of the commercial theatre. The whole undertaking was a step toward the establishment of a much-needed adult theatre.

The nascent group also began meeting at the Liberal Club to argue about the hot topics of the day: socialism, anarchism, free love, birth control, and women’s suffrage. Here were also involved Dell, who had been working as a book critic in Chicago; Ida Rauh, a would-be actress and the wife of Max Eastman, editor of the radical periodical The Masses; tyro Broadway actress Helen Westley, and writer George Cram Cook. These frustrated theatre artists put on one-act plays, usually composed, directed, and designed by Dell, who also performed in them.

Next door to the Liberal Club, at 137 MacDougal, was the Washington Square Book Shop run by the Boni brothers—”the exact center of the new bohemia.” Attracting few customers, the shop was a gathering place for radical poets and writers such as Reed, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and Theodore Dreiser. So that the budding artists could more easily mingle with the revolutionary writers and thinkers, a door was cut into the wall adjoining the Liberal Club. The Bonis encouraged the efforts of their new neighbors, and inevitably the conversation of the assemblage turned to theatre. The Liberal Club crowd had considered forming a performing company and renting a playhouse, but several attempts to find a site both suitable and affordable were unsuccessful. An art dealer on Washington Square had offered them free use of an unused room in his shop, but when he saw the response to the initial prospectus announcing the new company, he decided he had to charge them rent. Seeking further, the group looked at an empty stable at 139 MacDougal Street, but first the fire inspector, then the buildings inspector, and finally the health inspector all demanded alterations of the space and the cost became prohibitive. Ironically, that vacant stable later became the famous Provincetown Playhouse when the Provincetown Players moved from Cape Cod to Manhattan in 1916.

Ida Rauh lamented their lack of accommodation, but Albert Boni protested that a stage was unnecessary for producing a play. A Liberal Club member with some professional theatre experience who happened to be a Harvard schoolmate of Albert Boni’s resolved the matter immediately. Robert Edmond Jones, just returned from a stint in Europe studying stage design with Max Reinhardt, appeared propitiously at the bookstore.

“Do you have to have a stage to put on a play, Bobby?” asked Boni.
“Of course not,” answered Jones. “You can put on a play right here.”

So, they did. One of the store’s two large rooms was appropriated for a make-shift theatre with the frames of the sliding doors dividing them serving as a proscenium. The group selected Lord Dunsany’s The Glittering Gate as their text for two very practical reasons: it had only two speaking parts and the bookshop had several copies on its shelves. Using sheets of wrapping paper, Jones improvised two tall columns and long spears for the silent guards, for which the two tallest men present, stripped to the waist, were drafted. Jones transformed two other participants into boulders by covering their heads with coats and gave them candles to hold—instant footlights. Helen Westley and the others present became the delighted audience, and the play was thus enacted. It was a few months later, after the inspirited participants raised the money to rent a real theatre, that the formal life of the Washington Square Players began.

In 1914, WSP was essentially alone on the New York independent theatre scene; its colleague theatres had not yet established themselves on their own in the city. The Neighborhood Playhouse, begun in 1912 as an adjunct of the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, did not begin functioning separately until 1915. The Provincetown Players formed their group on Cape Cod in 1915 but did not move to New York to produce until 1916. These three essentially amateur organizations were followed by a number of other efforts, each inspired by the success of its predecessors, and often founded by departing members of one of the previous groups. This explosion began what today is the Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theatre in New York. Across the country, it gave impetus, inspiration—and material—to the newborn “little theatres” which were supplanting the old stock companies of the 1890s and the unsatisfying touring companies controlled by the Shubert Brothers and the Theatrical Syndicate. These regional theatres eventually developed into major theatrical houses such as Washington’s Arena Stage, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater and similar companies in other cities.

Aside from this influence outside the mainstream theatre world, the early Village theatres, even with all their amateurish, low-budget, simple production techniques, had a lasting impact on the commercial theatre against which they were a reaction. Their very success in attracting audiences to out-of-the-way locations and out-of-the-ordinary productions frankly frightened the Broadway producers. Eventually, however, it encouraged the commercial theatre to present more daring and significant material. American theatre before World War I was principally a place of entertainment, while the Washington Square Players and its like were places of dramatized ideas.

But why had these groups formed? What made them feel the need to create a new theatre program? Certainly they wanted to try their artistic wings and indulge their political and social views, but why not in the mainstream? History provides the answer to that, and, not surprisingly, it is based on economics. By the late 1890s, according to Walter Prichard Eaton, drama critic and historian of the Theatre Guild, the successor to the Washington Square Players,

the “Theatrical Syndicate” was formed, and set about to gain control of such a chain of theatres as would make booking with them inevitable . . . . The ambitious actor or producer who might wish to experiment or to do some fine thing limited in its appeal, either had to do it as best he could, at his own risk, and often in a poor theatre, or give it up.

A few enterprising producers like Arthur Hopkins did manage to “experiment” to a degree, “but by and large, productions had to conform to mass taste to get a profitable hearing . . . .” Elmer Rice, who as Elmer L. Reizenstein wrote Home of the Free for the Washington Square Players in 1918, evaluated the commercial theatre of the day in his 1963 autobiography:

In spite of the feebleness of many of today’s plays, the general level of writing and production is higher than it was fifty years ago. There were many excellent craftsman, but almost no plays of literary quality. My avidity for playgoing did not blind me to the fatuities of the native drama. My program books crinkle with scornful commentaries on the crude melodramas and mechanical farces that constituted the bulk of theatrical fare.

In the words of commercial producer Hopkins, all Broadway offered was “a ceaseless repetition of a familiar and timeworn formula” that no longer provided any excitement to the audiences.

In illustration of the futility of producing anything subdued, artistic, and delicate on Broadway, Rice relates an anecdote concerning Alice Brown, a New England author whose The Sugar House was performed by the Washington Square Players in 1916. When the Booth Theatre opened on Broadway’s Shubert Alley in 1913, owner Winthrop Ames offered a $10,000 prize for the best play to inaugurate the theatre. Alice Brown’s Children of Earth won the prize, but “the payment of such a sum to an unknown writer aroused expectations that the quiet, sensitive chronicle of New England life did not fulfill. It was soon withdrawn, another ‘proof’ that art in the theatre does not pay.” This was the prevailing trend of the Broadway theatre at the time the Villagers were forming their artistic and social philosophies. Susan Glaspell, who with her husband George Cram Cook was an early member of the Washington Square Players and later founded the Provincetown Players, summed it up for her fellows:

We went to the theater and for the most part wished we had gone somewhere else . . . . Plays . . . were patterned. They might be pretty good within themselves, seldom out to—where it surprised or thrilled your spirit to follow. They didn’t ask much of you, those plays. Having paid for your seat, the thing was all done for you, and your mind came out where it went in, only tireder . . . . What was this “Broadway,” which could make a thing as interesting as life into a thing as dull as a Broadway play?

For the most part, Broadway productions were “dramatized best sellers and vehicles drawn exclusively by stars.” Among the latter were the long-running title-character appearances of Joseph Jefferson in Rip Van Winkle, William Gillette in Sherlock Holmes, and James O’Neill in the famously career-dominating The Count of Monte Cristo. Aside from the “crude melodramas and mechanical farces” described by Elmer Rice, the mainstream product included mediocre romantic comedies and foreign works whose adaptation, in the words of a contemporary critic, “often robbed the play of all its character.” Furthermore, though the commercial producers controlled most of the money in theatre, artists were contemptuous of Broadway because the sets and costumes were old-fashioned. Even the “painstaking dramaturgy” of David Belasco, whose crowning achievement was the construction onstage of an operating replica of Child’s Restaurant, complete with “real flapjacks . . . fried on a real griddle,” for 1912’s Governor’s Lady, was used merely to enhance empty plots. Such elaborate realistic sets, which Robert Edmond Jones disparaged as “interior decorating,” were necessary only because “few of the dramas of our time have been vital enough to be able to dispense with them.” “The proscenium,” lamented Lee Simonson, the Players’ distinguished designer, “was nothing more than an enlarged peep-hole, the current theatre a peep-show.”

With this atmosphere in and around the mainstream theatre just when enthusiastic young people were looking for artistic outlets, it is certainly no wonder that they would be impelled to found their own companies. They needed something more than was available, but, as another critic of the time saw it, “the need is not recognized on Broadway, or if recognized it is not understood . . . . It can only be met by dramatists and actors and managers who of necessity reach that pitch of intensity about the consequential which . . . conceals a truth.”

That truth, according to Lawrence Langner, was “intelligence, and interest in social matters, and a serious critique of life . . . .” In the view of Philip Moeller, they intended “to assert the rights of the human soul. The American [commercial] theatre has no place for the subtler nuances of drama.” WSP expressed a desire, as theatre historian John Gassner saw it, not only “to introduce new styles of dramatic art to the American public . . . [but] to introduce new attitudes and interest in psychological and social truths.” Robert Edmond Jones, who helped inspire the launching of the Washington Square Players, noted that the contemporary theatre was concerned with creating stage “illusion”—remember Belasco’s restaurant set—when what he and his innovators wanted was “allusion.” The one, he knew, was rigid, empty, and fake; the other, fluid, provocative, and stimulating. What was being offered on American stages, Jones held, was not real theatre because it lacked any “dramatic nourishment.” “We are hungry,” he cried, “and we are given a cook-book to eat instead of a meal. We expect to go on a journey, and we have to be satisfied with a map and a time table.”

As was the practice, the Players published a Manifesto to set forth its aims and purposes. Written by founders Langner, Moeller, and Goodman, the statement made plain the following precepts:

The Washington Square Players . . . believe in the future of the theatre in America . . . .

The Washington Square Players believe that a higher standard can be reached only as the outcome of experiment and initiative.

We believe that hard work and perseverance, coupled with ability and the absence of purely commercial considerations, may result in the birth and healthy growth of an artistic theatre in this country.

We have only one policy in regard to the plays which we will produce—they must have artistic merit. Preference will be given to . . . plays . . . which have been ignored by the commercial managers.

Though not organized for purposes of profit, we are not endowed. Money alone has never produced an artistic theatre.

Believing in democracy in the theatre, we have fixed the charge for admission at 50 cents.

(The 50-cent admission was a third of the cost of the best seats in the commercial theater in 1916. Special events, such as an appearance of Vaslav Nijinsky and the Ballet Russe, could cost as much as five dollars. There were seats available for as little as 25 cents, but these would have been in the rear of the balcony or other poor seats; WSP tickets were set at one price for all seats at all times.)

[This is the first part of my analysis of the history and artistry of the Washington Square Players. I’ll pick up part two in a few days, starting with a discussion of its finances and how it managed that element of its work. Please come back to ROT at the start of next week to read how I saw the artistic aspects of the historic company.]

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