24 June 2012

The Washington Square Players: Art for Art’s Sake (Part 2)

[I covered a lot of the background of the formation of the Washington Square Players in part one of this article, outlining the rise of the bohemian scene in 19th- and early-20th-century Greenwich Village and describing the prevailing commercial theater in New York City in the years just before World War I. I’ll start here with a brief discussion of the troupe’s financial organization and move on to my analysis of the artistic aspects of the historic troupe.]

In order to be as independent as possible from the forces of politics, the Washington Square Players proposed to support themselves entirely from ticket sales and, in the first such scheme in the United States, subscriptions. The company started life with but a few hundred dollars in its coffers, contributed mostly by Langner and others of the wealthier supporters, and produced its first bill of one-acts at a cost of $35. In July 1916, Walter Prichard Eaton declared in American Magazine that “The Washington Square Theatre started in poverty, and it is comparatively poor yet—thank heaven. We hope it always will be. Then the workers in it will always be its lovers. We don’t want them to work for nothing; but better for nothing than for great riches.” By 1917, though, WSP was able to pay Theodore Dreiser a $200 advance for The Girl in the Coffin. The production was a huge success—the cast received 18 curtain calls and the audience yelled for the author, though Dreiser had been too shy even to attend the performance—and took in $300 over a six-week run. Low budgets, though a challenge, were seldom a hindrance, however. In fact, they sometimes inspired Lee Simonson to find innovative solutions to design problems using lighting, projections, and formal set pieces. Simonson’s set for Pierre Patelin (1916), one of the first uses in America of “permanent portals and an inner proscenium” enhanced by a backdrop in the “flat colour masses” common to contemporary European posters, illustrated this phenomenon.

Many theatre troupes of the day had clear biases of various kinds: The Neighborhood Playhouse directed its appeal to the East and Central European and Jewish residents of its Lower East Side home, consequently its repertoire was exclusively European; the Provincetown Players were oriented toward American plays and playwrights, and until 1924 produced exclusively contemporary American plays; and the Group Theatre of the 1930s was avidly leftist politically. The Players’ Manifesto, however, placed few restrictions on their repertoire except those of taste. The company’s original announcement succinctly stated that their only criterion would be “sincere, truthful and effective” writing. They hoped to provide a stage for American writers, but they also had a strong interest in European experimental drama which incensed some, including George Cram Cook who felt the Players were not giving native authors enough of a chance. The Provincetown Players, which Cook later founded, focused on the development of playwrights and thus expressly remained a small group, while the Washington Square Players concentrated on the advancement of production quality and so deliberately and rapidly expanded. The Provincetown, according to Lawrence Langner,

was always a more personal expression of the authors behind it than was our group, with the result that it tended to develop its authors rather than its audience . . . . It was frankly experimental as to plays while the Washington Square Players were attempting to present productions which would be in healthy competition with the plays of Broadway. The Washington Square group fought the issue of the art theatre versus the commercial theatre; it sought to produce its plays at the Comedy Theatre [on Broadway] in competition with commercial attractions . . . .
Max Eastman, however, admonished WSP to forget “the box-office and adhere to pure standards of art” by presenting non-commercial plays and plays ignored by the commercial producers. As Hannah White put it, “‘Art for art’s sake’ has been quoted as the slogan of the Washington Square Players.”

In fact, almost from the very beginning WSP bearded the Broadway lion in its own den. Unlike the other art and independent theatres of its time, the Players rented legitimate theatres and actively sought press coverage. Within weeks of that impromptu performance at the Bonis’ bookshop, the Players rented the Bandbox Theatre on East Fifty-seventh Street, assuming the lease of a German composer-impresario who had nearly gone bankrupt presenting his own musical comedies. Goodman, as director of the company, and business manager Langner sent out an announcement to prospective subscribers proclaiming the foundation of “an organization for those who cannot find response to their demands for quality of play and production in the usual New York playhouse.” The first bill of one-acts opened at the Bandbox on 19 February 1915 with four plays: Licensed by Basil Lawrence (Lawrence Langner’s nom-de-plume), Eugenically Speaking by Edward Goodman, Interior by Maurice Maeterlinck, and Another Interior, a satirical take on the symbolic Maeterlinck piece. They played weekends at first, but the demand for their innovative stagings of experimental, new works compelled them to perform four times a week. One critic, describing the fare as “$2 drama for fifty cents,” wrote, “If the Players can keep up their present pace they will make the Bandbox an institution.” By 1917 WSP had moved to the Comedy Theatre on West Thirty-eighth Street in the heart of the Broadway theatre district.

The group’s vaunted non-commercialism and fifty-cent admission charge—eventually raised to a dollar so they could pay their actors “a living wage”—may have attracted the audiences which bought out every performance of their first bill of one-acts, but it was their artistic appeal that filled their subsequent performances and elicited praise from many a jaded theatre critic. Hannah White, in The Independent, gave this appraisal:

Their capital was exactly nothing, their stock in trade boundless enthusiasm, indefatigable energy and a wide variety of talents . . . . They are all young and they are all idealists. They have convictions and they have the courage to carry them out. Their convention is unconventional and their motto is DARE!
If this sounds a bit hyperbolic, it may well be the result of the same numbing boredom on Broadway that spawned the groups themselves. An editor of Theatre Arts magazine remarked that

Their greatest service . . . lies in their proving that even New York has an audience for what is too fresh and sincere for the jaded commercial producer to recognize, and too strange to Broadway custom to find a way through other stage-doors . . . .
And audiences they did have. Other critics concurred with Hannah White’s estimation. Francis Hackett of The New Republic, for example, praised WSP for their “freshness and audacity that is expected to conquer the lethargic,” and “partly allures and partly intimidates the man who wants to see ‘a good play.’”

(Not everyone agreed. Babette Deutsch wrote in Touchstone: “They . . . will sacrifice a play to applause for its setting, and the excellence of a program to retaining their reputation for spicy productions.” In the New York Evening Post, a critic opined that “the appeal is distinctly to the ‘highbrow’ of revolutionary tendencies. That it will ever win an audience outside the spiritual frontiers of Greenwich Village is not probable . . . .”)

But exactly what was WSP producing that caused such reactions among critics and audiences? What were they doing that was so different from the commercial theatre with which they were so blatantly—and so successfully—competing? As already noted, they had no overt political bent, no exclusive American or contemporary orientation, no community loyalty.

Certainly the sets, in the “new stagecraft” developed in Europe by Adolphe Appia and Gordon Craig, “were unusual and arresting.” As Hannah White noted, the Players’ designers Robert Edmond Jones, Rollo Peters, and Lee Simonson created

artistic stage settings, daringly impressionistic . . . . Colors have been used as never before to register ideas. The audience gasps when the curtain goes up, but it applauds, too; and before a word is spoken the atmosphere of the play is established and the imagination of each spectator is in good working order.
Even Babette Deutsch, who generally disparaged the Players’ productions, lauded “their brilliant scenic effects, nearly always simple in line and unique in color arrangement . . . .” Elmer Rice was particularly taken with the work of Robert Edmond Jones, whose designs were “a sensational innovation in a theatre in which scene designing was little more than a branch of stage carpentry. The effect was revolutionary.” Both Jones and Simonson advocated sets that suggested reality without reproducing it, reducing the elements of the design to those that evoked, often through poetry and symbolism, the mood of the production or provided necessary information without eliminating the audience’s imagination. Furthermore, these advocates of the “new stagecraft” saw their art as an integral part of the production, enhancing the interpretation and aiding the dramatic action. The stage set was neither a beautiful picture—a work of art that stands alone—nor simply a background; it was an “environment”: “Players act in a setting,” wrote Jones, “not against it.”

Photographs of Players’ productions and descriptions of designs reveal a number of experimental techniques—though often crude and amateurish in execution, no doubt due to the small budgets. (As we’ve seen, their initial offering cost the Players only $35; some subsequent productions cost as little as $50 to mount.) A number of shows, such as Holland Hudson’s pantomime The Shepherd in the Distance, Maurice Maeterlinck’s Aglavaine and Selyzette and The Death of Tantagiles, and Nicholas Evreinov’s A Merry Death, made extensive use of curtains for walls, an innovation pioneered by Gordon Craig at the turn of the century. Another European practice WSP used was highly patterned wallpaper. Georg Fuchs’s Munich Art Theatre applied Craig’s technique in the early 1900s in “design” drops, as opposed to traditional “sky” drops, before which plays were performed on a shallow stage with a permanent, architectural setting. WSP also used a very shallow stage, but modified the pattern technique by using it as a thematic motif in a brightly colored set of basically realistic, if minimalist, silhouette. In the set of Edward Goodman’s Eugenically Speaking, for instance, a stylized apple motif was repeated in a wall frieze, door panels, a lamp shade, chair backs, and the edges of seats and table tops. Such motif repetition was frequent in Players’ set designs, sometimes showing up in door and window frames or moldings as well as upholstery and other decor elements.

The bright, often unnatural colors were a very common visual element. A vivid example is Lee Simonson’s design for Philip Moeller’s Sisters of Susanna. Actors in costumes of turquoise, emerald, and amethyst moved in an exotic, walled Moorish garden set in which “the walls are orange, almost coral; the lattice in the pavilion is purple and gold; the palms are black against a dense blue sky.” Strangely enough, starkly unrealistic sets alternated on the Players’ stage with essentially realistic and even naturalistic ones. Even these latter, however, were often modified by reducing the stage decoration and furniture to a bare minimum, though what was there was often perfectly realistic. (Necessity being the mother of invention, the lack of detail in these realistic sets may have been as much the result of economics as style.)

A less frequent design element was the influence of contemporary art in the decor. Lawrence Langner’s Another Way Out, designed by Joseph Platt, had a light-colored, stylized bedroom with a dark, abstract design reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley on three door panels and thematically repeated in the painted sky-light, the bedspread, and a wall hanging. (The photographs examined, in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, were black and white. Without a corresponding description of this particular set it’s impossible to determine if the light and dark areas were in fact respectively white and black.)

These scenic innovations, though a curiosity, could hardly have accounted for the immense popularity of the Players’ bills, all of which were sold out in advance. Designer Lee Simonson, himself, acknowledged that he became associated with the Washington Square Players because they “were dedicated not to providing visually beautiful spectacles, but to propagating what seemed to be important ideas in terms of dramatic stories.” So, what were the Players’ audiences flocking to see? What made the company so engagingly different? For one thing, “the plays . . . were vital, full of meaning, or full of racy fun . . . .” Setting aside those that were simply “racy fun,” such as George Jay Smith’s adaptation of Forbidden Fruit, a restoration-style fillip, and Molière’s Sganarelle, as well as the few whose appeal was purely exotic or curious—mostly the pantomimes like the collaborative Another Interior (set inside the human digestive system through which Gastric Juice runs amok), J. Garcia Pimentel and Beatrice de Holthoir’s Yum Chapab (based on a Mayan legend), and the anonymous The Poisoned Flower (a Chinese legend)—even a cursory reading of the group’s plays makes immediately clear what the attraction was. (In November 1916, WSP produced Bushido by Takeda Izumo, but according to various reviews it was the presentation of the theme of loyalty, not the Japanese locale, that attracted audiences and critics. In an unusual move, WSP engaged Japanese dancer Michio Itow to direct the play.) They were human. Not just realistic, in the academic sense of that label, but human—human scale, human emotion, and human problems. Most of the material was serio-comic: the comedies had serious underpinnings, and the dramas did not eschew comic elements. This was certainly a refreshing change from what Elmer Rice called “the stale, predigested fare of the commercial theatre.”

From the beginning, the Washington Square Players selected their scripts by committee, with every member voicing an opinion on the choice and the casting. Following the success of their second bill of one-acts in March 1915, which included Moondown by John Reed and Two Blind Beggars and One Less Blind by Philip Moeller among other new plays, the company was flooded with scripts. With the luxury of such riches from which to choose, anything WSP produced had to be unanimously approved by the committee. Even early submissions by the young Eugene O’Neill, including Bound East for Cardiff, failed the test. In fact, the Washington Square Players did not present its first O’Neill play, In the Zone, until its fourth season in October 1917. They eventually also produced The Rope in their last bill in April 1918. The group also rejected Glaspell and Cook’s satire on Freudianism, Suppressed Desires, when it was first submitted in 1915. Though WSP eventually produced it in January 1918, the committee told Cook in 1915 that the play was “too special” for the company’s audience.

One play in particular, 24-year-old Edward Massey’s Plots and Playwrights, is, itself, a case study of what Walter Prichard Eaton described as the Players’ “scorn for the flabby, purposeless, and false plays then . . . in the theatre and their enthusiasm for what they considered a more honest art.” The conceit of the play, directed by Edward Flammer and designed by Clifford Pember, is laid out in the Epilogue. It concerns Caspar Gay, a successful Broadway playwright wandering West Eleventh Street in Greenwich Village looking for “an inspiration—comedy, tragedy, romance”—for his next play. He meets young short-story writer Joseph Hastings, played by Ralph L. Roeder, in front of Mrs. Purcell’s Lodging House, represented by a painted drop of a brownstone facade. Gay (Ralph Bunker), dressed as a “toff” in silk topper, wing collar, and silk vest, explains his desperation, and Hastings, more modestly attired in a dark overcoat and fedora, suggests that there is material all around them, in each house on the block. As an example, Hastings suggests that there is a play on every floor of the boarding house. But Gay demurs: “These people are nobodies. There is no drama in nobodies.”

The challenge is on; Hastings responds, “I’ll write a play to prove it.” He “ascends the stoop, and rings the bell, and rents a room.”

The rest of the play is divided into two parts. “The facade rises,” recorded the critic for the Dramatic Mirror, “and discloses rooms on three different floors.” In Part I, we see three small dramas in sequence, each using the same basic set, with nearly identical lay-out and props. In Scene I (“The Story on the First Floor”), Mrs. Hammond (Helen Westley) awaits her daughter, Molly, who is returning after having been away a long time. The mother is planning a pleasant dinner at home for them, but the girl (Florence Enright) arrives with Tom Burch (Charles H. Meredith), a vaudeville dancer. Molly has become Tom’s partner and plans to leave immediately to tour with him, and they are going out to celebrate. In the end, Mrs. Hammond is left alone with the dinner for two.

Scene II, “The Story on the Second Floor,” involves three young women. One is Alice Merriam (Katherine Cornell), a bookish art student who does not date; the second is Bessie Dodge (Ruby Cravin), a good-time girl who burns her candle at both ends. The third, Edmé Jackes (Alice Rodier), younger and innocent, has fallen in love with Frank Devoy (Arthur E. Hohl), a young dandy. Both Edmé’s friends try to convince her not to take Frank seriously, each for opposite reasons. In the end, Edmé follows her own inclination.

In “The Story on the Third Floor,” Dick Griffiths, a studious and intelligent young man (Philip Tonge), who wants to go to college, is prevented by his brother, Sidney (Robert Strange), who insists the young man join him in the hat shop he owns. Sidney is adamant, not seeing any value in hifalutin notions like college, and finally cows young Dick with physical threats. The scene ends inconclusively, but without much hope.

In Part II, the two writers meet at a restaurant represented again by a painted drop on which are depicted windows with light streaming down and three of the four tables; only the fourth table with its two chairs is real. Gay agrees that Hastings has written a play, but scoffs, “That sort of thing won’t go on Broadway.” He offers to “turn it into a big Broadway success.” Using the same apartment setting, after the restaurant drop is flown out, Gay rearranges the characters and plots into a melodrama in which two of the boarders collaborated in a theft and are suspected by the police. It is standard, contrived stuff, reminiscent of early Hollywood output, with tearful pleadings by the crooks’ girlfriends, suspected betrayals, various forms of duplicity—and even the improbable complication that Edmé, the girl on the second floor, turns out to be the illegitimate granddaughter of Mrs. Hammond, the mother on the first floor.

An exchange not in the published script, but reported in the New York Times review, shows clearly what WSP was after, and what they were competing against. Hastings reacts in disbelief to Gay’s creation, and Gay responds:

“But,” says the playwright serenely, “it will run a year on Broadway.”
“My God,” cries the enlightened novelist, “it has.”

Hastings’s small, intimate dramas were real and tender, even if their themes were not earth-shaking. They were human themes—filial insensitivity, trusting one’s own judgment, lack of communications between siblings—and charmingly, delicately presented. Gay’s output, on the other hand, is complex, contrived, improbable, and predictable. Hastings’s characters, while not types, were recognizable, people we might know; Gay’s were stock characters out of “ten-twenty-thirty” melodrama. There is little doubt that an audience hungering for “unusual pieces in an unpretentious and yet effective way” would respond positively to offerings such as Hastings’s.

The acting of the production was universally praised, particularly the work of long-time member Westley and newcomer Cornell; however, photographs of the production, though they were probably posed shots, indicate that the acting was not what we would call “realistic” today, but showed elements of the stylized gestures and postures of François Delsarte—the dominant acting style of the day which we recognize as silent-movie acting. (There’s no way to tell how staged the photographs were.) Even so, there were a few examples of remarkably natural behavior among the actors, particularly the three women in Apartment 2. Katherine Cornell is sitting stage right, leaning into a table with her hands clasped on it. She wears a truthful look of sincerity as she addresses Ruby Cravin who stands opposite her (stage left) with her upstage knee resting on a chair and her downstage hand on her hip. Alice Rodier stands upstage center in an attitude of listening, looking at Cornell, her curled hand resting on the table. Everyone looks natural and animate. By contrast, the performances in Part II seemed far more melodramatic and “stagy”—very likely with the objective of depicting the kind of acting, as well as the kind of theatre, prevalent on Broadway. Alice Rodier stands stiffly stage left of the table with a gun pointed at Arthur Hohl (downstage right), her left arm straight down at her side. Hohl is in a lunge, his right leg extended behind him and his right hand in a claw. He is leaning on the table with his left hand, his head thrust toward Rodier, in a very unnatural pose. The World, nonetheless, dubbed Plots and Playwrights “both in the writing and the acting, . . . to be in the Players’ best vein.”

The response would be all the more enthusiastic when the offerings treated topical and controversial themes. In Plots and Playwrights, Hastings’s dramas dealt with universal themes, but other Players’ material used significant contemporary matters as subjects, themes, or plot devices. George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell’s Suppressed Desires was a comic look at the new—and rampantly indulged—Freudian psychoanalysis. (“You could not go out to buy a bun,” Glaspell once remarked, “without hearing of someone’s complex.”) Theodore Dreiser’s The Girl in the Coffin, inspired by “Big Bill” Hayward of the Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”), was set in Paterson, New Jersey, during the silkworkers’ strike, a cause célèbre of the labor activists at the time. Ardently pro-striker, it also touched on unwed motherhood and abortion and critiqued the mores of conventional society. Langner’s Licensed, the story of the death of a young man moments before his wedding to his pregnant fiancée, was a plea for birth-control, a new idea being preached openly for the first time by Margaret Sanger, a Village resident. Another Way Out, also by Langner, was based on his observations of the Village free-love cult; and Goodman’s Eugenically Speaking, voicing novel concepts on marriage, could be seen as a farcical comment on the Shavian idea of women’s liberation.

Grander themes with significance far beyond the Village and New York were also attempted on Players’ stages. Hervey White’s Fire and Water, produced in October 1915, concerned the brotherhood of man, “showing how French and German soldiers, between the lines, may be very good friends . . . .” It would be hard to imagine a more controversial idea at that particular time in history. Though America was still officially neutral regarding World War I, few here had any tender feelings for “The Hun.” In Children, by Guy Bolton and Tom Carlton, “a negro [sic] mother shoots her son dead rather than give him up to a lynching party.” It was intended to be a “sympathetic and clear-sighted psychological study of the Negro . . . .” Not only was the presence of black characters, other than servants and Stepin Fetchits, a breach of common practice, but a serious attempt to treat them with depth in terms of white prejudice would certainly have raised many an eyebrow. (If the characters had been performed by black actors, the production would indeed have been startling. There were no photographs of the cast, however, and the only names I recognized in the cast list were regular WSP members such as Ralph Roeder and Robert Strange, suggesting that the actors were white playing in blackface. An integrated company was apparently too far for even the liberal-minded Players to go in 1916.) The play was presented in March 1916—just fifty years after the Civil War, and at the height of Ku Klux Klan terrorism in the South.

Certainly not all of the Players’ efforts were successful critically. In early productions, their acting was “amateur, even at times fumbling,” and later, ambition led them to tackle material beyond their capabilities—mostly the full-length European plays by Chekhov, Ibsen, Maeterlinck, and Shaw. Still, the combination of new scenic art, serious subject matter—both subdued and controversial—and enthusiastic, albeit rough, performance techniques succeeded in making New York theatregoers sit up and take appreciative notice. The New York Tribune summed up the reaction this way:

If the American stage is ever to extend its exhibitions beyond the “tired business man” type of music show and the farces and melodramas which have been such money makers in the last couple of seasons, it will be by reason of the competition of such organizations as the Washington Square Players.
The Washington Square Players dissolved in 1918, primarily because the entry of the United States into World War I diverted the manpower of the company. In 1919, the company was reconstituted as the Theatre Guild by Langner, Moeller, Simonson, Westley, Maurice Wertheim, and Theresa Helburn, but between February 1915 and April 1918, a little over three years, the Players presented 72 plays, including six full-length, most of them new, untried, or overlooked works. They launched or enhanced the careers of young actors like Katherine Cornell, Helen Westley, Rollo Peters, Frank Conroy, and Roland Young, and designer Lee Simonson. But most importantly, WSP showed that sensitive productions of provocative works could attract audiences. Indeed, WSP had started—or at least given impetus to—a theatrical revolution that is still being felt today. Lawrence Langner concluded that

the Washington Square Players and . . . many others paved the way for a new professional theatre which was hospitable to works of art, and . . . were in the van of the revolution which changed the face of the American Theatre . . . .
In contrast with the prevalent competition, WSP was a brisk wind in a desert. “I believe the theatre as a cultural influence,” summed up Eugene O’Neill, “dates from the Washington Square Players in 1914 and the Provincetown Players in 1916. These two groups made it possible to present serious dramas.” The Players, believed O’Neill, helped introduce “culture into the pattern of the stage.” The alternative theatre the Players helped begin may very well have resuscitated a theatre in the throes of asphyxiation.

["The Washington Square Players Art for Art’s Sake” was awarded the 2004 National Amy & Eric Burger Prize for theater writing. A version of this article (with photos and source notes) was published in the 2005 edition of Theatre History Studies. I’ve also delivered a short version of the paper with slides at theater conferences.]

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