DRAMATIC GRUB STREET.
EXPLORED IN TWO LETTERS.
LETTER THE FIRST. FROM MR. READER TO MR. AUTHOR.
MY DEAR SIR,—I am sufficiently well-educated, and sufficiently refined in my tastes and habits, to be a member of the large class of persons usually honoured by literary courtesy with the title of the Intelligent Public. In the interests of the order to which I belong, I have a little complaint to make against the managers of our theatres, and a question to put afterwards, which you, as a literary man, will, I have no doubt, be both able and willing to answer.
For some months past, I have been proposing to address you on the subject of these lines. But, on reflection, I thought it best to wait until the Festival Performances in celebration of the marriage of the Princess Royal had especially directed our attention to the English Drama. It was not my good fortune to be present at any of those performances; but I read the criticisms on them in the newspapers with great attention. I found in most of the reviews a patriotic anxiety that our illustrious foreign visitors should derive a favourable impression of the English Drama, followed by a patriotic disapproval of certain imperfections in the representation of the plays, which threatened injury, in a dramatic point of view, to the honour of the nation, I have nothing to say on this point, not having been among the audience in the theatre. But, I have to express some surprise that the critics, while thinking of the dramatic credit of the nation, should have passed over the choice of the plays in silence, and merely have alluded to the manner of their representation.
Supposing any of our foreign visitors to have taken an interest in the matter, I should not be at all surprised to hear that one of them had expressed himself to the other, on the conclusion of the Festival Performances, in the following manner :—
"Illustrious Friend, we have been treated to the play (and our good suppers afterwards) for four nights. Three of those nights have been given to the English, to show us what state their dramatic art is in. One of the nights I understand. It showed us what this nation can do in the musical department of the drama. We had an opera written by a living Briton, in the present time. Good, so far. Another of those nights, I also understand. We had Shakspere. It was right to represent the greatest dramatic poet of the world, in the country that gave him birth. But the other night, also devoted to the English Drama, what on earth does it mean? We, as foreigners, having seen Shakspere, next ask naturally what can Shakspere’s dramatic brethren of the present day do for the theatre of their own time? We have seen the English Drama of the past, what is the English Drama of the present? We ask that; and the answer is a play written seventy or eighty years ago, by a great wit whose jokes; speeches, and debts have become a part of the history of England. What! has there been no man, then, who has written an original English play, since the time of The Rivals? If we ask what this nation is doing now in the literature of fiction, will they present to us Goldsmith, Sterne, Smollett, Fielding? If we ask for their modern historians, will they raise the ghosts of Hume and Gibbon? What does it mean? There is living literature of a genuine sort in the English libraries of the present time,—is there no living literature of a genuine sort in the English theatre of the present time also?"
I can quite understand one of our foreign visitors putting these questions; but I cannot at all imagine how we could contrive to give them a creditable and a satisfactory answer. Speaking as one of the English public, I am not only puzzled, as the foreigners might be, but dissatisfied as well. I can get good English poems, histories, biographies, novels, essays, travels, criticisms, all of the present time. Why can I not get good English dramas of the present time as well?
Say I am a Frenchman, fond of the imaginative literature of my country, well-read in all the best specimens of it,—I mean, best in a literary point of view, for I am not touching moral questions now. When I shut up Balzac, Victor Hugo, Dumas, and Soulié, and go to the theatre—what do I find? Balzac, Victor Hugo, Dumas, and Soulié again. The men who have been interesting and amusing me in my armchair, interesting and amusing me once more in my stall. The men who can really invent and observe for the reader, inventing and observing for the spectator also. What is the necessary consequence? The literary standard of the stage is raised; and the dramatist by profession must be as clever a man, in his way, as good an inventor, as correct a writer, as the novelist. And what, in my case, follows that consequence? Clearly this: the managers of theatres get as much of my money at night as the publishers of books get in the day.
Do the managers get as much from me in England? By no manner of means. For they hardly ever condescend to address me. I get up from reading the best works of our best living writers, and go to the theatre, here. What do I see? The play that I have seen before in Paris. This may do very well for my servant, who does not understand French, or for my tradesman, who has never had time to go to Paris,—but it is only showing me an old figure in a foreign dress, which does not become it like its native costume. But, perhaps, our dramatic entertainment is not a play adapted from the French Drama. Perhaps it is something English—a Burlesque. Delightful, I have no doubt, to a fast young farmer from the country, or to a convivial lawyer’s clerk who has never read anything but a newspaper in his life. But is it satisfactory to me? It is, if I want to go and see the Drama satirised. But I go to enjoy a new play—and I am rewarded by seeing all my favourite ideas and characters in some old play ridiculed. This, like the adapted drama, is the sort of entertainment I do not want.
I read at home David Copperfield, The Newcomes, Jane Eyre, and many more original stories, by many more original authors, that delight me. I go to the theatre, and naturally want original stories by original authors which will also delight me there. Do I get what I ask for? Yes, if I want to see an old play over again. But if I want a new play? Why, then I must have the French adaptation, or the burlesque. The publisher can understand that there are people among his customers who possess cultivated tastes, and can cater for them accordingly, when they ask for something new. The manager, in the same case, recognizes no difference between me and my servant. My footman goes to see the play-actors, and cares very little what they perform in. If my taste is not his taste, we may part at the theatre door,— he goes in, and I go home. It may be said, Why is my footman’s taste not to be provided for? By way of answering that question, I will ask another:—Why is my footman not to have the chance of improving his taste, and making it as good as mine?
The case between the two countries seems to stand thus, then:—In France, the most eminent literary men of the period write, as a matter of course, for the stage, as well as for the library table; and, in France, the theatre is the luxury of all classes. In England, the most eminent literary men write for the library table alone; and, in England, the theatre is the luxury of the illiterate classes—the house of call where the ignorance of the country assembles in high force, where the intelligence of the country is miserably represented by a minority that is not worth counting. What is the reason of this? Why has our modern stage no modern literature?
There is the question with which I threatened you. To what do you attribute the present shameful dearth of stage literature? To the dearth of good actors?—or, if not to that, to what other cause? Of one thing I am certain, that there is no want of a large and a ready audience for original English plays possessing genuine dramatic merit, and appealing, as forcibly as our best novels do, to the tastes, the interests, and the sympathies of our own time. You, who have had some experience of society, know as well as I do that there is in this country a very large class of persons whose minds are stiffened by no Puritanical scruples, whose circumstances in the world are easy, whose time is at their own disposal, who are the very people to make a good audience and a paying audience at a theatre, and who yet, hardly ever darken theatrical doors more than two or three times in a year. You know this; and you know also that the systematic neglect of the theatre in these people has been forced on them, in the first instance, by the shock inflicted on their good sense by nine-tenths of the so-called new entertainments which are offered to them. I am not speaking now of gorgeous scenic revivals of old plays—for which I have a great respect, because they offer to sensible people the only decent substitute for genuine dramatic novelty to be met with at the present time. I am referring to the "new entertainments" which are, in the vast majority of cases, second-hand entertainments to every man in the theatre who is familiar with the French writers—or insufferably coarse entertainments to every man who has elevated his taste by making himself acquainted with the best modern literature of his own land. Let my servant, let my small tradesman, let the fast young farmers and lawyers’ clerks, be all catered for! But surely, if they have their theatre, I, and my large class ought to have our theatre too! The fast young farmer has his dramatists, just as he has his novelists in the penny journals. We, on our side, have got our great novelists (whose works the fast young farmer does not read)—why, I ask again, are we not to have our great dramatists as well?
With high esteem, yours, my dear sir,
LETTER THE SECOND. FROM MR. AUTHOR TO MR. READER.
MY DEAR SIR,—I thoroughly understand your complaint, and I think I can answer your question. My reply will probably a little astonish you—for I mean to speak the plain truth boldly. The public ought to know the real state of the case, as regards the present position of the English stage toward English Literature, for the public alone can work the needful reform.
You ask, if I attribute the present dearth of stage literature to the dearth of good actors? I reply to that in the negative. When the good literature comes, the good actors will come also, where they are wanted. In many branches of the theatrical art they are not wanted. We have as good living actors among us now as ever trod the stage, And we should have more if dramatic literature called for more. It is literature that makes the actor—not the actor who makes literature. I could name men to you, now on the stage, whose advance in their profession they owe entirely to the rare opportunities, which the occasional appearance of a genuinely good play has afforded to them, of stepping out—men whose sense of the picturesque and the natural in their art, lay dormant, until the pen of the writer woke it into action. Show me a school of dramatists, and I will show you a school of actors soon afterwards—as surely as the effect follows the cause.
You have spoken of France. I will now speak of France also; for the literary comparison with our neighbours is as applicable to the main point of my letter as it was to the main point of yours.
Suppose me to be a French novelist. If I am a successful man, my work has a certain market value at the publisher’s. So far my case is the same if I am an English novelist—but there the analogy stops. In France, the manager of the theatre can compete with the publisher for the purchase of any new idea that I have to sell. In France, the market value of my new play is as high, or higher, than the market value of my new novel. If I can work well for the theatre in France, I am just as sure of being able to pay my butcher, my baker, my rent and taxes, as I am when I work well for the publisher. Remember, I am not now writing of French theatres which have assistance from the Government, but of French theatres which depend, as our theatres do, entirely on the public. Any one of those theatres will give me as much, I repeat, for the toil of my brains on their behalf, as the publisher will give for the toil of my brains on his. Now, so far is this from being the case in England, that it is a fact perfectly well known to every literary man in the country, that, while the remuneration for every other species of literature has enormously increased in the last hundred years, the remuneration for dramatic writing has steadily decreased, to such a minimum of pecuniary recognition as to make it impossible for a man who lives by the successful use of his pen, as a writer of books, to alter the nature of his literary practice, and live, or nearly live, in comfortable circumstances, by the use of his pen, as a writer of plays. It is time that this fact was generally known, to justify successful living authors for their apparent neglect of one of the highest branches of their Art. I tell you, in plain terms, that I could only write a play for the English stage—a successful play, mind—by consenting to what would be, in my case, and even more so in the cases of my more successful brethren, a serious pecuniary sacrifice.
Let me make the meanness of the remuneration for stage-writing in our day, as compared with what that remuneration was in past times, clear to your mind by one or two examples. Rather more than a hundred years ago, Doctor Johnson wrote a very bad play called Irene, which proved a total failure on representation, and which tottered, rather than "ran," for just nine nights, to wretched houses. Excluding his literary copyright of a hundred pounds, the Doctor’s dramatic profit on a play that was a failure—remember that!—amounted to one hundred and ninety-five pounds, being just forty-five pounds more than the remuneration now paid, to my certain knowledge, for many a play within the last five years which has had a successful run of sixty, and, in some cases, even of a hundred nights!
I can imagine your amazement at reading this—but I can also assure you that any higher rate of remuneration is exceptional. Let me, however, give the managers the benefit of the exception. Sometimes two hundred pounds have been paid, within the last five years, for a play; and, on one or two rare occasions, three hundred. If Shakspere came to life again, and took Macbeth to an English theatre, in this year, eighteen hundred and fifty-eight, that is the highest market remuneration he could get for it. You are to understand that this miserable decline in the money-reward held out to dramatic literature is peculiar to our own day. Without going back again so long as a century—without going back farther than the time of George Colman, the younger—I may remind you that the comedy of John Bull brought the author twelve hundred pounds. Since then, six or seven hundred pounds have been paid for a new play; and, later yet, five hundred pounds. We have now got to three hundred pounds, as the exception, and to one hundred and fifty, as the rule. I am speaking, remember, of plays in not less than three acts, which are, or are supposed to be, original—of plays which run from sixty to a hundred nights, and which put their bread (buttered thickly on both sides) into the mouths of actors and managers. As to the remuneration for ordinary translations from the French, I would rather not mention what that is. And, indeed, there is no need I should do so. We are talking of the stage in its present relation to English literature. Suppose I wrote for it, as some of my friends suggest I should; and suppose I could produce one thoroughly original play, with a story of my own sole invention, with characters of my own sole creation, every year. The utmost annual income the English stage would, at present prices, pay me, after exhausting my brains in its service, would be three hundred pounds!
I use the expression "exhausting my brains," advisedly. For a man who produces a new work, every year, which has any real value and completeness as a work of literary Art, does, let him be who he may, for a time, exhaust his brain by the process, and leave it sorely in need of an after-period of absolute repose. Three hundred a-year, therefore, is the utmost that a fertile original author can expect to get by the stage, at present market-rates of remuneration.
Such is now the position of the dramatic writer—a special man, with a special faculty. What is now the position of the dramatic performer, when he happens to be a special man, with a special faculty also? Is his income three hundred a-year! Is his manager’s income three hundred a-year? The popular actors of the time when Colman got his twelve hundred pounds would be struck dumb with amazement if they saw what salaries their successors are getting now. If stage remuneration has decreased sordidly in our time for authorship, it has increased splendidly for actorship. When a manager tells me now that his theatre cannot afford to pay me half or a quarter as much for my idea in the form of a play as I can get for it in the form of a novel—or as I could have got for it in Colman’s time—he really means that he and his actors take a great deal more now from the nightly receipts of the theatres than they ever thought of taking in the time of John Bull. When the actors’ profits from the theatre are largely increased, somebody else’s profits from the same theatre must be decreased. That somebody else is the dramatic author. There you have the real secret of the mean rate at which the English stage now estimates the assistance of English Literature.
There are persons whose interest it may be to deny this; and who will deny it. It is not a question of assertion or denial, but a question of figures. How much per week did a popular actor get in Colman’s time? How much per week does a popular actor get now? The biographies of dead players will answer the first question. And the managers’ books, for the past ten or fifteen years, will answer the second. I must not give offence by comparisons between living and dead men—I must not enter into details, because they would lead me too near to the private affairs of other people. But I tell you again, that the remuneration for good acting has immensely increased in our time, and I am not afraid of having that assertion contradicted by proofs.
I know it may be said that, in quoting Colman’s twelve hundred pounds, I have quoted an exceptional instance. Perfectly true. But the admission strengthens my case, for it sets results in this form: in Colman’s time, the exceptional price was twelve hundred pounds; in ours it is three hundred. Let us go into particulars, and see whether facts and figures justify the extraordinary disproportion between the reward which theatrical success brought to the author at the beginning of the present century, and the reward which it brings now.
Colman’s comedy of John Bull, was produced at Covent Garden Theatre in the year eighteen hundred and three. The. average receipts taken at the doors during, the run of the play, were four hundred and seventy pounds, per night. John Bull ran forty-seven nights. Multiply four hundred and seventy pounds by forty-seven nights, and the gross receipts of the theatre,, during the time of John Bull, amount, in round numbers, to twenty-two thousand pounds. A prodigious sum, produced by an exceptional dramatic success. Exceptional remuneration to author, twelve hundred pounds...
Now, for the present time. A remarkably successful play runs one hundred nights at the present day. But we must set against that fact in the author’s favour, two facts in the manager’s favour. Excepting Drury Lane, all our theatres are smaller than the Covent Garden Theatre of Colman’s time; and, in every case, Drury Lane included, our prices of admission are much lower. We will say, therefore, that while an unusually successful modern play runs its hundred nights, the theatre takes at the doors only one hundred and ten pounds per night. Any person conversant with theatrical matters would probably tell you that one hundred and fifty pounds per night would be nearer the average of the money-taken at the doors of all our theatres—large and small—during the run of a particularly successful play. However, we will err on the right side; we will exaggerate the poverty-stricken condition of starving actors and managers in the present day; and we will say that, our modern play which is a great "hit," runs one hundred nights to houses which take one hundred and ten pounds per night at the doors. Multiply one hundred and ten pounds by one hundred nights, and the product is eleven thousand pounds. Exactly half of what the theatre got in the time of John Bull. Does the successful author meet with the same justice now, which he met with in Colman’s time?—in other words, does he get half of what Colman got, for bringing to the theatre half what Colman brought? No; for then he would get six hundred pounds as his exceptional remuneration, instead of the miserable half-price of three hundred which is now offered to him.
Here are the results in plain figures:
"1803.—Poor starving theatre gets £22,000.
Amazingly successful author gets £1200.
"1858.—Poor starving theatre gets £11,000.
Amazingly successful author gets £300.
Where has that missing three hundred pounds got to? It has got into the managers’ and actors’ pockets.
It is useless to attempt a defence of the present system by telling me that a different plan of remunerating the dramatic author was adopted in former times, and that a different plan is also practised on the French stage. I am not discussing which plan is best or which plan is worst. I am only dealing with the plain fact, that the present stage-estimate of the author is barbarously low—an estimate which men who had any value for literature, any idea of its importance, any artist-like sympathy with its great difficulties, and its great achievements, would be ashamed to make. I prove that fact by reference to the proceedings of a better past time, and I leave the means of effecting a reform to those who are bound in common honour and common justice to make the reform. It is not my business to re-adjust the commercial machinery of theatres; I don’t sit in the treasury, and handle the strings of the money-bags. I say that the present system is a base one toward literature, and that the history of the past, and the experience of the present, prove it to be so. All the reasoning in the world which tries to convince us that a wrong is necessary will not succeed in proving that wrong to be right.
Having now established the existence of the abuse, it is easy enough to get on to the consequences that have arisen from it. At the present low rate of remuneration, a man of ability wastes his powers if he writes for the stage. There are men still in existence, who occasionally write for it, for the love and honour of their Art. Once, perhaps, in two or three years, one of these devoted men will try single-handed to dissipate the dense dramatic fog that hangs over the stage and the audience. For the brief allotted space of time, the one toiling hand lets in a little light, unthanked by the actors, unaided by the critics, unnoticed by the audience. The time expires—the fog gathers back—the toiling hand disappears. Sometimes it returns once more bravely to the hard, hopeless work: and out of all the hundreds whom it has tried to enlighten, there shall not be one who is grateful enough to know it again.
These exceptional men—too few, too scattered, too personally unimportant in the republic of letters, to have any strong or lasting influence—are not the professed dramatists of our times. These are not the writers who make so much as a clerk’s income out of the stage. The few men of practical ability who now write for the English Theatre are men of the world, who know that they are throwing away their talents if they take the trouble to invent, for an average remuneration of one hundred and fifty pounds. The well-paid Frenchman supplies them with a story and characters ready-made. The Original Adaptation is rattled off in a week: and the dramatic author beats the clerk after all, by getting so much more money for so much less manual exercise in the shape of writing. Below this clever tactician, who foils the theatre with its own weapons, come the rank-and-file of hack-writers, who work still more cheaply, and give still less (I am rejoiced to say) for the money. The stage results of this sort of authorship, as you have said, virtually drive the intelligent classes out of the theatre. Half a century since, the prosperity of the manager’s treasury would have suffered in consequence. But the increase of wealth and population, and the railway connection between London and the country, more than supply in quantity what audiences have lost in quality. Not only does the manager lose nothing in the way of profit—he absolutely gains by getting a vast nightly majority into his theatre, whose ignorant insensibility nothing can shock. Let him cast what garbage he pleases before them, the unquestioning mouths of his audience open, and snap at it. I am sorry and ashamed to write in this way of any assemblage of my own countrymen; but a large experience of theatres forces me to confess that I am writing the truth. If you want to find out who the people are who know nothing whatever, even by hearsay, of the progress of the literature of their own time—who have caught no chance vestige of any one of the ideas which are floating about before their very eyes—who are, to all social intents and purposes, as far behind the age they live in as any people out of a lunatic asylum can be—go to a theatre, and be very careful, in doing so, to pick out the most popular performance of the day. The actors themselves, when they are men of any intelligence, are thoroughly aware of the utter incapacity of the tribunal which is supposed to judge them. Not very long ago, an actor, standing deservedly in the front rank of his profession, happened to play even more admirably than usual in a certain new part. Meeting him soon afterwards, I offered him my mite of praise in all sincerity. "Yes," was his reply; "I know that I act my very best in that part, for I hardly get a hand of applause in it through the whole evening." Such is the condition to which the dearth of good literature has now reduced the audiences of English theatres—even in the estimation of the men who act before them.
And what is to remedy this? Nothing can remedy it but a change for the better in the audiences. I have good hope that this change is slowly, very slowly, beginning. "When things are at the worst they are sure to mend." I really think that, in dramatic matters, they have been at the worst; and I have therefore some belief that the next turn of Fortune’s wheel may be in our favour. In certain theatres, I fancy I notice already symptoms of a slight additional sprinkling of intelligence among the audiences. If I am right, if this sprinkling increases, if the few people who have brains in their heads will express themselves boldly, if those who are fit to lead the opinion of their neighbours will resolutely make the attempt to lead it, instead of indolently wrapping themselves up in their own contempt—then there may be a creditable dramatic future yet in store for the countrymen of Shakspere. Perhaps we may yet live to see the day when managers will be forced to seek out the writers who are really setting their mark on the literature of the age—when "starvation prices" shall have given place to a fair remuneration—and when the prompter shall have his share with the publisher in the best work that can be done for him by the best writers of the time.
Meanwhile, there is a large audience of intelligent people, with plenty of money in their pockets, waiting for a theatre to go to. Supposing that such an amazing moral portent should ever appear in the English firmament as a theatrical speculator who can actually claim some slight acquaintance with contemporary literature; and supposing that unparalleled man to be smitten with a sudden desire to ascertain what the circulation actually is of serial publications and successful novels which address the educated classes; I think I may safely predict the consequences that would follow, as soon as our ideal manager had received his information and recovered from his astonishment. London would be startled, one fine morning, by finding a new theatre opened. Names that are now well known on title-pages only would then appear on play-bills also; and tens of thousands of readers, who now pass the theatre door with indifference, would be turned into tens of thousands of play-goers also. What a cry of astonishment would be heard thereupon in the remotest fastness of old theatrical London! "Merciful Heaven! There is a large public, after all, for well-paid original plays, as well as for well-paid original books. And a man has turned up, at last, of our own managerial order, who has absolutely found it out!"
Although I have by no means exhausted the subject, I have written enough to answer your letter—enough also, I trust, to suggest some little glimmerings of hope, when you think of the future of the English drama. As for the present, perhaps the best way will be to look at it as little as possible. When any intelligent foreigner innocently questions you on the subject of our modern drama, I think you will take the best way out of the difficulty if you ask him, with all possible politeness, to—wait for an answer
With true regard, yours, my dear Sir,
A. N. AUTHOR.
Taken from Household Words 6 March 1858 XVII 265-270
The following note was added by Wilkie Collins at the start of this essay in the 1863 collection of 25 of his pieces published in two volumes as My Miscellanies (London 1863). This essay and the note were omitted from the one-volume edition in 1875 and subsequently. Despite Collins's claim that the pieces were reprinted ‘as they were originally produced’ this essay was more than 1000 words shorter in My Miscellanies and ‘To Think or Be Thought For’ was more than 500 words shorter.
* This paper, and the paper on Art, entitled ‘To Think, or Be Thought For,’ which immediately follows it, provoked, at the time of their first appearance, some remonstrance both of the public and the private sort. I was blamed—so far as I could understand the objections—for letting out the truth about the Drama, and for speaking my mind (instead of keeping it to myself, as other people did) on the subject of the Old Masters. Finding, however, that my positions remained practically unrefuted and that my views were largely shared by readers with no professional interest in theatres, and no vested critical rights in old pictures—and knowing, besides, that I had not written without some previous inquiry and consideration—I held steadily to my own convictions; and I hold to them still. These articles are now reprinted (as they were originally produced) to serve two objects which I persist in thinking of some importance:— Freedom of inquiry into the debased condition of the English Theatre; and freedom of thought on the subject of the Fine Arts.
My Miscellanies 1863 II 193
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