The Dramatic Critic

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/December 1, 1910

The Managers Make War

As is usual at this season of the year, wars have broken out in several American cities between the powers that be in the theatrical world and the dramatic critics of the local newspapers. Such combats always come with the cold weather. On the one hand the managers maintain that the critics are prejudiced, ignorant and sometimes even downright dishonest: and on the other hand the critics maintain that the managers are practitioners of cheap chicanery and that the public should be warned of their shoddy goods. The newspapers which employ the critics always become parties to the battle. Sometimes they stand by their men, facing the withdrawal of advertising—a favorite managerial weapon—without a tremor. At other times, to the disgrace of journalism be it said, they come down like Davy Crockett’s coon, and their theatrical reviews grow benevolently mild.

The times, however, bear harshly upon newspapers of the latter class. It is not long before the public spots them and ceases to revere them. Year by year, interest in the art of the theatre increases in the United States and year by year the demand increases that it be discussed intelligently and with independence in the daily papers. In other words, that paper which hires a competent dramatic reviewer and then gives him a reasonably free hand is a paper which appeals with force to a growing body of thoughtful readers, and is on the road to a measurable increase in both the quantity and the quality of its circulation.

In The Good Old Days

In the days of the old-time stock companies—say, up to 20 years ago—the dramatic critic was a fellow of smaller audience and less influence. In those days the people of a town, by long familiarity, came to estimate their local stock company very accurately. They grew intimately acquainted with the work of each member, they knew what he could do and what he couldn’t do, what parts he adorned and what parts he mauled. They knew, too, most of the dramas in the company’s repertoire. New plays were rare; most of the performances were of old favorites. In consequence of all this there was little need for critical guidance and criticism became mere rhapsody. The public, in fact, was its own critic; it had no use for a professional taster and interpreter of novelties, for the simple reason that novelties were few and far between.

But not so today. A city of Baltimore’s rank is visited by at least three new companies of the first pretensions each week—companies that are made up, in the main, of performers never before seen here in combination, and that present plays which are new, and often wholly unknown to the local public. Thus the need has arisen for some intelligible account, every Tuesday morning, of the performances of the night before, and thus it happens that in cities such as Baltimore every newspaper of consideration has to maintain not one critic but two or three.

There are amateurs of the drama, of course, who scorn to read the newspaper reviews. There are also person so adventurous that their thirst for novelty exceeds their fear of being disappointed. The two classes make up the Monday-night audience. But the great majority of theatergoers, in the very nature of things, must go to the play upon some later night, and so the chance offers to reach them with authentic news of playhouse doings. The Tuesday papers give them in clear terms an account of the merits and defects of the week’s bills, and they are enabled, on inspecting these accounts, to decide what they want to see.

One Man’s Good Work

A critic who reveals a sound knowledge of the drama and a judgment uncontaminated by managerial wheedling and threats is not long in gaining a following which turns to his pronouncements regularly and gives them firm faith. Every large American city has at least one such well-esteemed reviewer. In Baltimore, for example, it is probable that hundreds and perhaps even thousands of persons are constantly influenced in their view of plays and players by the reviews of one man. He has been a student of the drama for 25 years, he is keenly hospitable to merit in dramaturgy or acting, he has the faculty of presenting his conclusions clearly and interestingly, and his whole career has been a proof of his honesty and courage.

Upon such men, scattered through the country, a great responsibility rests. The public’s attitude toward the art of the theatre is largely determined by their judgments. If they are ever alert and prudent, progressive and broad-minded, there will be a constant movement forward; but if, on the contrary, they relax their vigilance, even for a moment, there will be sloth or reaction. It is not often that the managers can be trusted to go forward without prodding. Nine-tenths of them are too stupid, too hunkerous, too bare of ideals, and the rest are overcautious. Practically all of the progress that has been made in the drama in the last century has been made through the efforts of dramatists and critics and against the opposition of managers and actors.

The Manager’s Standard

This is particularly true in the United States. In Germany the managers of the principal theatres are often educated men; in France the state helps to hold up the standards of the stage, and in England much is accomplished by a small and miraculous class of intelligent actor-managers; but in the United States theatrical management is frankly a trade. The average producing manager, even the manager of fair eminence, knows no more about the drama, as an art form, than an Eskimo knows of bathtubs. He estimates all plays by the profits they yield. Judged by the metric system he affects, “Madame X” is better than “The Hypocrites:” “Way Down East” is better than “Hamlet,” which never pays, and “Ben-Hur,” that sacrilegious circus, is 100 times as meritorious as “The Rivals” or “Heimat” or “Hedda Gabler” or “Strife.”

All of the other arts are in the hands of men who make, at least, some effort to comprehend them. The most ignorant picture broker in the world is still not so ignorant that he thinks Velaquez was a Swede and Watteau a painter of battle pieces. The average opera manager, however absurd his diamonds and fur coat, is well aware, at any rate, that “Tristan and Isolde” is of more consideration, as a work of art, than “Florodora.” Only the theatrical manager remains a mere dealer. The force of gravity grips him; his tendency is ever downward. In consequence, one of the critic’s most important duties is that of bringing him sharply to book, whenever he starts upon the path. There is indeed, more than a little truth in his piteous wall that the critic is his natural and unrelenting enemy.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

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