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The Triumvirate (1): Sheldon Cheney   Next


The ideals were markedly similar from group to group, spokesman to spokesman. The significant voice of the new movement was finally heard when the magazine Theatre Arts—its title a manifesto of sorts—began publication in 1916 under the editorship of Sheldon Cheney, who in 1914 had published a pioneering work, The New Movement in the Theatre. Cheney’s book defined the limits and aims of the movement, and the definitions are important to the direction that O’Neill’s playwriting career took after 1922, indeed had begun to follow before the end of the first phase of the Provincetown Players.

Cheney felt that in Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century, there had been a renaissance of dramatic activity which bid fair to rival the theatrical renaissance during Elizabethan England. The forerunners, Ibsen, Hauptmann, Wedekind and others, by 1914 had given way to a new generation of important playwrights, among whom he listed with approval Galsworthy, Shaw, Barrie, Maeterlinck, Schnitzler, Rostand and Brieux. Using their work as a basis for examination, he defined three forms of drama with which the Art Theatre must be concerned.

The first is the “aesthetic” drama, which he defined as “a typical theatric art that is as far as possible removed from the emotional and intellectual elements, tending to become purely sensuous.”1 The second type, which he called “psychologic,” is the contrary of the first, a drama of thought and emotion “divorced as far as possible from visual and sensuous appeals, affording deep emotional experience and intellectual stimulus.”2 The third, called a “re­theatralizing” of the drama, is “an attempt to bring all the arts of the theatre into more perfect relation with the limitations of the playhouse; and to invent a stagecraft that will serve to mount beautifully the plays of either the aesthetic or psychologic type.”3

There is implicit in Cheney’s aesthetic the suggestion that the Art Theatre would find least congenial the “psychologic” theatre, whose chief exponent in English was John Galsworthy. Nevertheless, he and his fellow playwrights were men of deep sincerity. “They strive above all to be true to themselves. But as they are men who live deeply and study and write passionately, they are at the same time true to life and to art. Their plays are truly dramatic, rather than theatric; they are natural, but not slavishly photographic: they incorporate only detail that is organic to the dramatic design; they interpret rather than imitate; they deal with inner spiritual forces, rather than with outward melodramatic happenings; they affect the emotions, and indirectly the mind, by a quiet development of character, rather than pleasing the outward sense and surface feelings by sensationalism. Their work is usually social drama in the best sense. It is humanitarian, because they reflect contemporary life, and the spirit of the age is humanitarian.”4

What mattered to Cheney, as it did to all followers of the new theatrical art, was the inner spirit, and if the psychologic drama possessed this, there was no reason to think that it could not be staged in a vital and progressive manner. It was a matter of faith to Cheney: “In the theatre and in the church, the deeper chords of spirituality are touched as nowhere else in life,”5 and this alone was worth seeking. The artist interprets life, whether he is “idealist” or “realist.” “Both show forth not the outward semblances of nature but the essences of life,” although the realist keeps closer to man’s actual experience, while the idealist “strays into higher flights of imaginative experience. One tends to the particular, the other to the general,” but both “seek more precise knowledge of the facts of life and . . . employ an ennobling idealism in interpreting that knowledge.”6

The enemy was evident. It was what Cheney called “naturalism,” and by which he meant the “servile imitation of nature.” To his mind, almost any commercial production sought to reproduce the surfaces of life in the shallowest manner—with drops exhibiting crude painted perspective of exterior or interior scenes, with harsh unmodeled lighting, with, in the case of David Belasco, a clutter of objects on stage all of which were irrelevant to the action, and many extraneous special effects which excited an audience in their own right, however inappropriate they were to the play’s meaning.*

For Cheney, this was the crux of the matter. “The new stagecraft,” he wrote, “exists in the attempt to fit the method of presentation perfectly to the play.”7 He mentioned other designers, George Fuchs and Jacques Rouché, but it was evident that to Cheney, Gordon Craig was the one god and Max Reinhardt was his prophet. Craig’s work in the area of “aesthetic drama” was deeply impressive to Cheney. He wrote at length of the pure aesthetic spectacle of Craig’s über-marionettes, of mimo-drama, as evidenced by Reinhardt’s Sumurun and The Miracle, but especially he praised the simplicity and beauty of Craig’s screen settings. Craig had shown a new conception of theatre as being something decorative, relying on beautiful movement and design—a work “visually effective rather than emotionally stirring or intellectually interesting.”8 Craig also had producers aware of the need for a single artist in total control of all aspects of the production so that the drama could achieve an aesthetic unity and atmospheric harmony appropriate to the mood and inner truth of the play. In conclusion, Cheney, turned from Craig to discuss the work of Reinhardt and others and to talk of new developments in theatre crafts, and theatre architecture, mentioning especially the plaster dome, a sample of which Cook was to construct six years later at the Provincetown.**

The definition of theatre art that Cheney provided in his first two books was taken up by many voices thereafter. A surging awareness of possibility came over the country. All inveighed against the theatrical syndicates, against the personality actor, against outmoded methods of stagecraft. Some pinned their faiths in the regional theatres arising in smaller cities than New York, but Cheney had prophetically warned that “the great American dramatists will be distinctly of the city,”9 and he meant New York. Evidence that the New York theatres were dedicated to “art” was in Cheney’s time minimal—to be found for the most part in the work of Arthur Hopkins and Winthrop Ames, in the Washington Square Players, who by 1918 had declared themselves to be professional*** and established themselves as the Theatre Guild, and in the work of the Provincetown Players and Neighborhood Playhouse.**** Hopkins, of course, had produced “Anna Christie” and the professional production of The Hairy Ape, but O’Neill was turning out plays far more rapidly than Hopkins could mount them, even had he wished to do so. At one point, O’Neill had tried to interest the Theatre Guild in “Anna Christie,” but the project, which involved the Guild’s co-producing with George Tyler, was dropped, and the Guild turned down the script of The First Man. Idealistic or not, the established Art Theatres were a limited market. O’Neill’s problem was to find a theatre which could serve him as the Provincetown Players had served him at first, but which would be both professional and idealistic, adhering to the new sense of theatre art as Cheney and others had defined them. As the need grew, the answer came. Eugene O’Neill met Kenneth Macgowan.

* Belasco, whose “aesthetic” was commercially successful, was the bête-noire of all preachers of the Art Theatre. Nevertheless, he was clearly seen as one who in stagecraft at least was a part of the movement. Gheney, for example, noted that his position of command over all aspects of his productions was essential to the achievement of art in the theatre. He praised the unhurried care with which Belasco prepared a play for the stage and noted that in its lighting his work was more advanced than that of any other American producer. Cheney also credited him with ridding the American stage of the painted, flat set, replacing it with a true box set whose details were three dimensional, as in life.

** In a subsequent work, The Art Theatre, published by Knopf in 1916, Cheney assessed the Art Theatre movement throughout the United States. He paid particular attention to the work of Maurice Browne and the Chicago Little Theatre and of Sam Hume at the Detroit Arts and Crafts Theatre. Both men had begun to achieve in practice what Cheney had praised in theory two years earlier. Hume, whom Cheney had known for his work at the Greek Theatre at the University of California at Berkeley, had studied with Gordon Craig and had developed a Craig-like setting of screens which could be variously placed to suit the needs of most productions. Browne’s work is noteworthy for its integrity and its truth to spiritual and aesthetic ideals. Many of the same allegiances were revealed in the first issues of Theatre Arts Magazine which Cheney edited, beginning in 1916.

*** Cheney notes that the Washington Square Players thought of themselves as professionals, but mixed both amateur and professional actors with unsatisfactory results. Cf. The Art Theatre, 97 and 115.

**** Other “revolutionaries” working on Broadway were Brock Pemberton and J. D. Williams whose somewhat reluctant production of Beyond the Horizon must be viewed as a straw in the winds of change.

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