restricted access A Commentary (June 1926)
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[ 785 A Commentary The New Criterion: A Quarterly Review, 4 (June 1926) 417-20 The Sunday Theatrical Societies During the last year or two the number of societies for subscription performances has increased amazingly. Besides the Stage Society, and its offshoots , the Phoenix and the Greek Play Society, there exist the Renaissance Theatre, the Film Society, and several societies for the production of the work of new or exotic playwrights. The number of these organisations is not, in an absolute sense, excessive: nearly every one of them has a distinct and praiseworthy purpose. But it is obvious that this kind of society cannot multiply, or even continue in its present numbers without some reconstruction . The support for it comes from a very small number of people, few of whom can be called enthusiasts: they grow tired of signing cheques, and what is still worse, grow tired of seeing each others’ faces. Before we reach the point at which the “revival” of interest in the theatre threatens to extinguish itself, it is well to consider whether a healthier organisation might not be manipulated. A National Theatre Too Educational Dissatisfaction with the contemporary “commercial” stage can never be wholly appeased by any number of revivals, importations and private performances , though if these can be stabilised they may in time influence the public stage: the Phoenix helped to prepare an audience for The Way of the World.1 On the other hand, the project of a national theatre, at which all masterpieces shall be performed in rotation, is one which makes us quail. We have no confidence in any combination of persons which might rise to power; in any commissions, boards, committees or directors who might be elected to choose and produce the repertoire. Our contemporary, The Mask (April), is angry with the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust for bestowing £14,200 for the purchase of Sadler’s Wells as “an Old Vic for North London.” According to The Mask, the Carnegie Trust pronounces that “drama is a definite factor in national education.” We have not verified the quotation, but the dreadful term, definite factor, rings true to the spirit 1926 786 ] of philanthropy, and so does national education.2 Civilisation, culture, and enjoyment of anything intellectual being suspect, they cannot pass authority unless disguised beneath the dim word “education” – a word which has lost almost all meaning, but which still fortifies in utilitarian and democratic odour. A National Theatre is not a thing to educate anybody ; it is something to which the public, in a very long time, must first be educated. The Private Societies Again Itisimpossible,inametropolis,toobtaintheconditionsforaMaddermarket Theatre; though it might be possible, and is certainly desirable, to get Mr. Nugent Monck to stage performances for the societies in London.3 What practicalsuggestionswecanmakearebarelythese:(1)tolegalisetheSunday performances as a public entertainment, so that they could be properly advertised and so that tickets could be sold at the door to anyone; (2) to organise the various societies so that a performance of one kind or another might be found every Sunday at the same theatre, and to advertise the whole organisation in such a way as to appeal to the desire for pleasure, not the cupidity for education or up-to-dateness. Enough recruits might be added to the audience to be disciplined into the corps d’élite of the general public; and at the same time a number of half-hearted social troopers would be released to the more congenial allegiance to Arlen and Coward.4 The Phoenix Whether such a proposal be chimerical or not, it would be a very great pity if, in the meantime, The Phoenix were incinerated for ever. The Phoenix has done some very fine work under great difficulties. It has been limited in its scope: with an uncertain and capricious public, it has been restricted to plays, among Elizabethan and Restoration Drama, for which the public was more or less prepared. Its greatest successes, therefore, have been in Restoration Comedy. There is a great deal more that the Phoenix could do; many Elizabethan plays which, if in a stable position, it might revive. But its peculiar value, among all the societies, is this: that the plays which it has presented, constitute an assertion of literary values on the stage. Now, whatever else may be said, good or bad, of contemporary drama here or abroad, we must agree that its literary value is almost null. We do not mean that plays are unreadable, but that they lack...


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