Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 14. The Star System; Theatrical Trusts; Charles and Daniel Frohman

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVIII. The Drama, 1860–1918

§ 14. The Star System; Theatrical Trusts; Charles and Daniel Frohman

Stage history must again be recalled, because the affairs of the theatre have so completely governed our playwrights. Howard, Herne, MacKaye, De Mille, Belasco, Gillette, Thomas, and Fitch—names which practically represent the American dramatist from 1888 until 1900—grew up, fought, and flourished under the increasing shadow of the commercialtheatre. After Daniel Frohman left the Madison Square Theatre and opened his Lyceum (in May, 1885), and after his brother Charles (1860–1915) had opened the Empire Theatre (in January, 1893), with estimable stock companies, it became evident that two new elements confronted the American theatregoers. First, the interest in the play was largely centred in the personality of the player. Julia Marlowe, Edward H. Sothern, Otis Skinner, William Faversham, Henry Miller, Margaret Anglin, Maude Adams, James K. Hackett, Viola Allen,—all and many more came into prominence through the adoption of the “star” system—a system which was more firmly believed in by Charles Frohman than by his brother Daniel. But both of them began thus early to monopolize certain English dramatists, tying them up in “futures,” as Pinero was tied, and as, later, the English playwrights J.M. Barrie, Jones, Carton, Marshall, Davies, and their generation were “signed up” by Charles Frohman on his yearly trips to London for material. The theatre was run on principles more and more commercial, though both the Lyceum and the Empire in these days gave agreeable artistic productions. It is true that Daniel Frohman produced pieces by American playwrights like Belasco, De Mille, Marguerite Merrington (Captain Letterblair, 16 August, 1892), Fitch (An American Duchess, 20 November, 1893; The Moth and the Flame, 11 April, 1898; The Girl and the Judge, 4 December, 1901), Mrs. Frances Hodgson Burnett (The First Gentleman of Europe, 25 January, 1897), Madeleine Lucette Ryley (The Mysterious Mr. Bugle, 19 April, 1897; Richard Savage, 4 February, 1901), Grace Livingston Furness and Abby Sage Richardson (Colonial Girl, 31 October, 1898; Americans at Home, 13 March, 1899). It is also true that Charles Frohman, opening his Empire Theatre with the Belasco-Fyles military drama, The Girl I Left Behind Me (25 January, 1893), figured largely in the development of Gillette, Fitch, and Thomas. Nevertheless, it was not by their faith in the American playwright that the powerful position of the theatrical managers was won, but rather through the astute manner in which they watched the foreign market. They were sure of foreign successes; they were not willing to risk the untried American. Besides, with the end of the stock company fashion, travelling companies began to increase in favour, and this meant the growth of a system of “booking” which put into the hands of a few the power of dictating what amusements the theatregoing Americans, outside of large theatrical centres, could have. The managers throttled the theatres by 1896, when the Theatrical Trust was formed, and though actors rebelled—men like Mansfield, Francis Wilson, Herne, and Joseph Jefferson; though such actresses as Mrs. Fiske and Mme. Bernhardt suffered from their enmity by being debarred from places where the Trust owned the only available theatres—still, the actors finally succumbed one by one, the playwrights listened to their commercial dictators, managers of minor theatres became their henchmen. In such an atmosphere, while in time we got good plays, it was impossible for a serious body of American dramaturgic art to develop. It was thought that if the monopolistic power of the Trust could be broken, all might be well again. And it was broken: there soon came two combinations instead of one—with the same evils of “booking,” the same paucity of good things because of commercial regulations and measurements. Nothing could dispel this dull atmosphere but a complete reorganization of the theatre. It will later be seen that this break-up is now (1919) in process.