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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Relations of the Press and the Stage

By William Winter (1836–1917)

[From an Address before the New York Goethe Club. 1889.]

HAVE you ever considered the spectacle that is presented by the press of this country whenever the approach of a new actor is announced? If I may lightly employ the sublime Miltonic figure, “far off his coming shines.” First there is a rumor that he has been engaged. Then a regretful doubt is cast upon the rumor. Then the expeditious cable flashes over a scornful repudiation of the doubt, coupled with the cordial assurance that the engagement is really made. Then comes the sketch of his illustrious life, wherein are set forth all the glowing details of his great successes beyond the sea. A little later the opinions of the foreign press begin to mingle with the stream of local news. A few anecdotes, sentimental or humorous, illustrative of his fascinating character come next and do not come amiss. Presently our diligent journals apprise us that he has eaten his farewell dinner and uttered with deep emotion his farewell speech, and that his bark is now actually upon the sea. The list of his theatrical company, the catalogue of his scenery, and the names of his plays and characters are next in order, and are duly supplied. The interval of the voyage is devoted to recapitulation and to a sympathetic portrayal of the views of his manager as to the expediency of raising the prices, and of the lively excitement with which the ticket-sellers await his approach. No sooner does his ship cast anchor in our bay than a tug-boat streaming with banners and filled with newspaper reporters arrives at Quarantine to “meet him and receive him,” while not improbably a committee from the Lotos Club or the Lambs awaits him on the steamship pier to ask him to dinner. For several ensuing days the newspapers teem with what are called interviews—frightful compounds of platitude and triviality, through which their writers loom forth as prodigies of impertinent curiosity and vulgar insolence, while the honored stranger is indeed fortunate if, with all the laborious courtesy of his patient and wary replies, he escapes emblazonment as a preposterous ass. At length, sustained and cheered by the acclamation of a great multitude, he steps upon the scene and plays his part, and the next day every considerable newspaper in the land gives a column to his exploit. From that time onward his advance through the continent is a triumphant progress. The luxurious Pullman car whirls him from city to city. The stateliest mansions throw wide their doors for his reception. The brightest spirits of the club, the studio, and the boudoir throng around him with every proffer of hospitality that kindness can suggest or liberal prodigality provide. Statesmen are his companions. Fair ladies crown him with laurel. Poets embalm his great name in the amber of their verse. The boys buy his picture and “make up” on his model. The girls cannot live without his autograph. Nothing is left undone that by any possibility of chance can make him happy; and as he thus speeds onward in the glittering track of the occidental star the vigilant newspaper—the sleepless eye, the tireless hand, the ceaseless voice—faithful to the last, whether he buys a cravat, or plants a tree, or restores a monument, or endows a college, or loses a pocket-handkerchief, still follows his renowned footsteps and still keeps amply full the daily chronicle of his illustrious deeds….

It is my desire neither to exaggerate nor to depreciate the influence of dramatic criticism, but I have never been able quite to understand the superlative practical value of it, as proclaimed by many persons. To my mind the newspaper article on the stage never settles anything. If well written it may interest the reader’s thoughts, excite his curiosity, increase or rectify his knowledge, and possibly suggest to him a beneficial line of reflection or study. That is all. Newspaper commendation may accelerate the success of a play already recognized as good, and newspaper ridicule may hasten the obsequies of a play already so bad that its failure is inevitable. But criticism establishes no man’s rank, fixes no man’s opinion, dissuades no man from the bent of his humor. The actor whom it praises may nevertheless pass away and no place be found for him. The actor whom it “slates” does not expire, neither does he repair to the woods. Far more likely he goes to Boston and writes a Reply. In the early days of “The Black Crook,” when it had become known to me, from the police, that one form of vice had been much increased, through the influence of that spectacle, in the neighborhood of Niblo’s Theatre, I thought it was my duty (as the dramatic reviewer for the “New York Tribune”) to denounce that exhibition; and I did denounce it “in good set terms.” The consequence was an immediate and enormous increase in the public attendance, and my friend Henry D. Palmer, one of the managers of the “Crook,” addressed to me these grateful and expressive words: “Go on, my boy; this is exactly what we want.” Since then I have been reticent with fulminations in the presumed interest of public morality. At the present moment two amiable and handsome young people are disporting at a neighboring theatre as Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. A more futile performance, in every possible point of view, probably was never given: and I believe the critical tribunals of the town have mostly stated this truth—in some cases with considerable virulence. Yet this performance draws crowded houses, and, no doubt, it will continue to draw them, here and all over the country. Many other elements enter into this subject aside from the question of dramatic art. The critic of the stage should do his duty, but he will be wise not to magnify his office, and he certainly becomes comical when he plumes himself as to the practical results of his ministration. I know that he exists in the midst of tribulations. He must pass almost every night of his life in a hot theatre, breathing the bad air and commingling with a miscellaneous multitude ennobled by the sacred muniment of liberty but largely unaccustomed to the use of soap. He must frequently and resignedly contemplate red and green and yellow nightmares of scenery that would cause the patient omnibus-horse to lie down in his tracks and expire. He must often and calmly listen to the voice of the national catarrh, in comparison with which the aquatic fog-horn or the ear-piercing fife is a soothing sound of peace. He must blandly respond to the patent-leather smile of the effusive theatrical agent, who hopes that he is very well but inwardly wishes him in Tophet. He must clasp the clammy hand and hear the baleful question of the gibbering “first-night” lunatic, who exists for the sole purpose of inquiring “What do you think of this?” He must preserve the coolness and composure of a marble statue, when every nerve in his system is tingling with the anxious sense of responsibility, haste, and doubt; and he must perform the delicate and difficult duty of critical comment upon the personality of the most sensitive people in the world under a pressure of adverse conditions such as would paralyze any intellect not specially trained to the task. And when he has done his work, and done it to the best of his ability and conscience, he must be able placidly to reflect that his motives are impugned, that his integrity is flouted, that his character is traduced, and that his name is bemired by every filthy scribbler in the blackguard section of the press and of the stage, with as little compunction as though he were the “common cry of curs.” These trials, however, need not turn his brain. He should not suppose, as he often does, that an attentive universe waits trembling on his nod. He should not flatter himself with the delusion that he can make or unmake the reputation of other men. It often happens that his articles are not read at all; and when they are read it is quite as likely that they will incite antipathy as it is that they will win assent. He should not imagine that he is Apollo standing by a tripod, or Brutus sending his son to the block. He is, in reality, firing a pop-gun. He is writing a newspaper article about a theatrical performance, but both the performance and the article will be forgotten on the day after to-morrow. He should not forget that an actor whom he dislikes may nevertheless be a good actor, and that an actor whom he admires may nevertheless be a bad one. Human judgment is finite, and it ought always to be charitable; and the stage, which is the mirror of human life, affords ample room for an honest difference of opinion. There is no reason in the world, furthermore, why the dramatic critic, merely because he happens to hold that office, should straightway imbibe a hideous hatred of all other unfortunate beings who chance to labor in the same field. He would be much better employed in writing those wise and true and beautiful dramatic criticisms which he thinks ought to be written than he is when uttering querulous and bitter and nasty complaint and invective because they are not as he considers, written by his contemporaries in his own line. Let him improve his own opportunity and leave others to their devices. All the good that he can really accomplish is done when he sets the passing aspects of the stage instructively, agreeably, and suggestively before the public mind, and keeps them there. He is not required to manage the theatres or to regulate the people who are trying to earn a living by means of the stage. “To be useful to as many as possible,” says the wise thinker Walter Savage Landor, “is the especial duty of the critic, and his utility can only be attained by rectitude and precision.” The newspaper article accomplishes all that should be expected of it when it arouses and pleases and benefits the reader, clarifying his views, and helping him to look with a sympathetic and serene vision upon the pleasures and pains, the joys and sorrows, the ennobling splendors and the solemn admonitions of the realm of art.