Title: The Little Theatre in the United States by Constance D’Arcy Mackay
Location: Google Books Date: 1917
The Fine Arts Building in Chicago is one of my favorite places to visit. This is just one of the reasons…
The Little Theatres of Chicago
Chicago, the largest city in the West, has three Little Theatres, each one having a strong note of individuality. Taken separately they represent three distinct types of theatres. Maurice Browne’s pioneer Little Theatre represents the repertory art theatre; the Workshop Theatre represents the localistic experimental theatre; the Hull House Theatre with the Hull House Players represents the sociological type.
Of these theatres Maurice Browne’s Little Theatre was the first to be established in 1911-1912. It is located , on the fourth floor of the Fine Arts building on Michigan Avenue. Its charming interiors white outlined in gold, and there are dark green seats. The auditorium is long and narrow. The seating capacity is ninety-one.
From the day of its founding Mr. Browne, in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties, has held to the idea for which this Little Theatre was established. It was not as easy to make a success of a Little Theatre in 1912 as it is in 1917. There was no public ready and waiting for the non-commercial fare Mr. Browne had to offer. He had to fight the early prejudice that labeled a Little Theatre “Dangerous! Beware of Highbrowism.” It is a thousand times easier to succeed with the Little Theatre today than it was when Mr. Browne first sought to establish his. People have become used to the idea of Little Theatres. They are no longer looked upon as jsljange and impractical.
Maurice Browne’s Little Theatre is thus described by its founder: ” It is a repertory and experimental art theatre producing classical and modern plays, both tragedy and comedy, at popular prices. Preference is given in its productions to poetic and imaginative plays, dealing primarily whether as tragedy or comedy with character in action. . . . It has for its object the creation of a new plastic and rlrythmic drama in America.”
The Little Theatre is supported by a membership of some 400 people who pay an’ annual subscription of ten dollars, and by the sale of seats to the general public. The subscribers who pay ten dollars a year are admitted to all performances of the Little Theatre Company without charge, and to all other entertainments given in the Little Theatre at half price. Admission is one dollar. So admirably have the finances been managed that the Little Theatre, which began with an indebtedness of $10,500, was able to pay off fifty-five per cent, of its debt after three months’ work. And this work included the production of plays produced primarily for love of art and not for love of gain. The plays were simply and beautifully staged at surprisingly low cost. It is an eagle’s feather in the cap of Mr. Browne that eighteen performances were given—and well given—in his tiny theatre for a total of $868.62!
The staff and players at the Little Theatre number . approximately thirty-five people. The company is semi- ‘ professional. All those who have completed two years’ consecutive service with the theatre receive a small salary averaging ten dollars weekly. During the first three and a half years of the Little Theatre’s existence no salary was in excess of sixteen dollars and fifty cents a week.
The Little Theatre produces plays by European and ‘ American authors. One-act plays and three and four- act plays have been produced in about equal numbers.
Among the greatest successes of the Little Theatre have been the remarkable production of Euripides, The Trojan Women, which antedated Granville Barker’s and other “art” productions of this time-defying drama; the beautiful and reverent Christmas mystery play done in silhouette; and from the point of view of scenic art Maurice Browne’s The King of the Jews, and Maurice Baring’s Catherine Parr. Mr. Browne is stage director as well as moving spirit of the Little Theatre and C. Raymond Johnson his art director. Mr. Johnson has designed the investiture for all of the Little Theatre’s most significant productions.
The Trojan Women was a triumph for the Little Theatre because it brought the vasty deeps of that ancient tragedy into a small playhouse onto a small stage and yet gave the illusion of bigness. There was fine breadth and sweep to the acting; the poses of the chorus were plastic and pictorial. Its stern simplicity was far more moving than Granville Barker’s more elaborate production.
The Little Theatre produced The Trojan Women during the season of 1912-1913. It was the first production of this play in America. It was revived by the Little Theatre Company during the season of 1913-1914. In the course of both these seasons it was played in several other American cities by the same company, who revived it again during the season 1914-1915, and toured the country with it from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast.
The Trojan Women had one scene throughout: A massive stone wall lost to view beyond the line of the proscenium arch, formed the background. This stone wall, jaggedly cleft in the center, showed the sky beyond. Not only were the massive squares of stone that formed the wall played on by different lights as the play proceeded; but the sky beyond the jagged cleft changed gradually from the intense blue of full day to the softer colors of dusk, thus giving differentiation. The red of the flaming city also flared beyond this cleft, and characters entering or leaving the scene stood out in dark silhouette against the fiery background. It was a scenic triumph made possible largely through its remarkable lighting.
The Christmas Mystery Play was given totally in silhouette, with the figures of the New Testament story moving in flat shadow bas-relief against the curtain. This shadow play was lit from the back. The slightest miscalculation of distance or of lighting would have wrought havoc with it; but it was from first to last superbly done. Looking at it one felt that this was perhaps the only way in which the story of the New Testament could be told without offense. The characters were not substantial flesh and blood, but figures of strange mystery, moving as in a dream.
Mr. Johnson’s work as a colorist was seen to advantage in his costume effects for Maurice Browne’s King of the Jews. Here color became a symbol, as in the harsh red and gold of the Roman guard. The costume of Judas, a sinister muddy green combined with muddy lavender, gave his vivid red hair and beard a startling effect. Caiphas was curiously effective in purplish gray and ochre. The Little Theatre is fortunate in its decorations. The banquet hall scene, designed for Maurice Baring’s Catherine Parr, was memorable for its greenish- blue banquet table and greenish-blue high-back banquet chairs set against the background of heavy bluish-purple curtains. These curtains parted to display a flat Rein hardtesque wall of apple green. §till another strange and regal effect was attained through a Little Theatre design of purple banquet chairs and table placed against the background of dark green hangings that parted on the flat wall flooded with yellow light.
It was a dictum of August Strindberg’s that no.Little Theatre with a small stage could ever present outdoor scenes successfully. The Chicago Little Theatre has shattered this idea by a design made by its art director for a midsummer wood. This design was recently exhibited in New York. It showed a scene flooded with the bluish white of moonlight. There was a shallow stage and a back drop of faint bluish white. In the center of this back drop was a great creamy midsummer moon, round and low-lying, just coming up over the rim of the midsummer dusk. One great dark branchless tree trunk soared up beyond the proscenium arch, and was lost to view. To look at this scene was to feel that in a moment Titania and her fairy revelers would appear. It was of magic loveliness, yet simplicity itself.
Mr. Browne’s Little Theatre has been a potent influence in the art of the West and its players, many of whom are now appearing in other Little Theatres, are spreading the non-commercial gospel for which he stands.