THE SEVEN LIVELY ARTS

Gilbert Seldes

An Imaginary Conversation

pages 27-38 


The theatre of Dionysos. A great crowd is just leaving the amphitheatre and as the attendants roll back the heavy awnings and unleash the tent-poles, the moon, which has been excluded for the performance, begins to filter in, and presently the stone begin s to throw o§ faint shimmers, and dark shadows fall across the stage. The builded temple, which has been screened, is now revealed, and its colours glow again, albeit in shades not known to the light of day. The porticos of temples look down upon the thea tre, and olive trees stand dark and beautiful on the hills. From afar the bustle of the town dies away, and, perhaps, in a moment of unutterable stillness, the murmur of the many-sounding sea can be heard.  

The spectators of the strange entertainment have at last departed, and the long e's, ungrateful to the ear of the Attic scholar, are heard no more. In the far centre of the theatre a man IS taking apart a mechanism--that from which the deus sprang in this evening's play. Two other men remain. One walks musing and absorbed, looking toward that entrance whereby Orestes was wont to make his way to the stage. The other walks slowly round about the theatre, marking its aspects, and thinking of practical things . Presently they meet at the spot where once the choragus stood. They salute each other.  

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MR GRIFFITH

I am sorry that you should have been here tonight. To you, I suppose, this has been only a sac rilege. I am sorry that you should feel that I am gloating over my success. But perhaps I am mistaken. Are you, or are you not, Walter Pritchard Eaton!  

MR EATON

I am. And you are David Wark Griffith, are you not? [D. G. nods.] We are well met, then--if I may make use of a phrase which the drama, and not your metier has made famous. By the way, ought I to "register" pleasure in any conventional way!  

D. G.

Score one for you. I have sinned. But since you say we are well met, can't we chat for a moment about things! You see, I am not altogether unaffected by this scene-the light, and the ancient theatre, and the memories of it all.  

W. P. E.

They would all do admirably for a picture-for one of those extraordinary scenic effects which you create as no other man can create them. But the memories-those at least are mine. Surely you are not thinking of--  

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D. G.

No. Not just now. I am humble at times. But let us say that you are the great antagonist of the movies, and I the protagonist. I want very much to understand what you mean when you attack them. I remember you said that my spectacle, The Birth of a Nation, was violently unfair because it was wordless. Am I not right?  

W. P. E.

I said some such thing.  

D. G.

And you are a defender of the theatre. May I assume that The Clansman, which was a spoken drama, was more fair than my spectacle?  

W. P. E.

At least, in the play, there was a reply in kind to every attack. The dumb-show for which you are responsible showed only one side.  

D. G.

Then you are attacking the movie for being a propaganda, and are displeased with the propaganda because it is one-sided. May I say that possibly the movie was made as an artistic spectacle, and had no such object? And do 1 not recall the  

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surprise with which such a play as Strife was received because it did show two sides? After all, I did not make it impossible for you to put on Uncle Tom's Cabin as a reply to me.  

W. P. E.

It would be fruitless to continue the discussion on this point. I spoke of your movie in passing, because I am always hearing about it. For the most part let us admit that it was not cheap. Can you say as much for the others ?  

D. G.

No. The movie is a vulgar art--it is the vulgar art. And certainly I do not purpose to rob that statement of its effectiveness by saying that the word must be taken in its best, or even in its original, meaning. It must be taken in its worst meaning. The m ovie is vulgar, but it is art. The best of it is none too good-yet. But the worst of it is not so bad as you think.  

W. P. E.

I am willing to grant you that in the representation of spectacle, in the realm of trick photography and in the preservation of the events of the moment, the movie has its place. I question it only when it invades the drama. There you must pardon me. I ha ve the drama close to my heart.  

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D. G.

You have been warming the viper quite a long time. It is about to sting. I am willing to t you that in musical comedy, in purely intellectual engagements, and in the exploitation of sound, the drama has its place. But 1 have noticed in your own complaints that in the things that touch the heart, in the grand manner, in the projection of high emotion, you find the drama of to-day a pretty sad affair.  

W. P. E.

Who is to blame for it?  

D. G.

Who killed Cock Robin? Not 1. 1 had not heard that the Comedie-Francaise was seriously affected by the activities of Pathe Freres. I have yet to learn that music has been driven into hiding by the movies, although I have heard that the ride of the Valkyri es is more familiarly known to-day as the "Klan-theme" from The Birth. Didn't your theatre die-if it has died-because it stifled itself ? Hadn't you noticed the decline ten years ago?  

W. P. E.

I am not blaming the movie. I am deploring it. 1 do not think that it is good for people to  

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be eternally fed on whatever is cheapest, nearest, easiest of comprehension. I object to it all the more when something high and fine is butchered to make a movie holiday.  

D. G.

I deplore that as much as you. I do not think that Cabiria was cheap, or easy of comprehension. There was enough on the surface to make it popular. But there was also enough in the depths to make it grand.  

W. P. E.

The movie is still two-dimensional, Mr Griffith. Can we speak of depths?  

D. G.

Ah, you say "still"! Then we have a future. In the theatre there was a long succession of little known men, and then came the men whose plays made these stones sacred to you. There were many Elizabethans before Shakespeare. Will you call me the Marlowe of the movies? I believe in them enough to hope for a Shakespeare. But don't you see that we are young; we are without conventions--  

W. P. E.

Pardon me. You are with far too many. 1 remember that in the early days, when you went about  

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on tiptoe for fear of waking up the revengeful Muses, you employed actors without any technique. There was an uncouth, a delightful freshness, about your work. I had hopes then that you would con tribute to the stage. Instead you have taken from it. You have borrowed all its worst conventions. And you have added some of your own. There is the dreadful convention of registering.  

D. G.

Isn't that from the stage ?  

W. P. E.

Hardly. 

D. G.

Your actors and actresses register. 

W. P. E.

Not as yours do. The long training in the ex pression of emotions has developed a suitable medium, the slightest variation on which becomes inestimably precious. In the moving picture the variation is unknown. And, although I am the last person to want to advantage the movie, let me tell you why. I can hear the voice of the director, just as the misguided husband leaves his wife-a favorite situation in the movies and very novel-I can hear  

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him crying out, "Register grief!" If he does not cry out, the inner voice of the actress cries out. Not "feel," not "express the feeling," but express the semblance of grief. It is an art of superficies. Perhaps your actresses-and why, dear sir, do you ch oose such impossibly blond, pretty and stupid actresses? -have worked out a new expression, a new registration. At the terrible moment they forget. They register as they, or another actress as well paid and as hotly advertised, registered six months befor e. I am as tired of heaving breasts and eyes turned to heaven as I am tired of Charlie Chaplin's walk when he does not walk it. Conventions? There is no end to them. What your art, as you call it, lacks, is limitations.  

D. G.

You mean there are no limits to it? That is a strange remark for you to make.  

W. P. E.

No. I do not mean that. I mean that every art, until recent times, has proposed certain limitations, under which it had to work. Goethe-a poet whom you have yet to introduce to your spectators--once wrote, "In der Beschrankung zeigt sich erst der Meister!" And these limitations must be more than physical. There is no reason why a poem  

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should rhyme abbaabbacdcdcd, but the sonnet must rhyme in some such manner, or it will not be perfect. There may be greater poems than these sonnets--that is a matter of taste-but the art of the sonnet has its own perfection because those limitations have been accepted joyously by those who chose to write. You have proposed no limitations to yourself. Your art is chaos.  

D. G.

Didn't I confess as much when I said it was vulgar? It must have its appeal to the very lowest. But because our roots are in the dung and the mire, do you think there shall be no lovely blossoms on the trees in spring and no fruit? If I make a fortune in raw melodrama, shall I not spend it on Helen of Troy?  

W. P. E.

Helen of Troy!  

D. G.

Why not? The moving picture is always elemental, but it can be grand. What are the essentials of a story: love, beauty, pursuit, coincidence, rescue-  

W. P. E.

Tell me, Mr Griffith, is it true that you recite "The Relief at Lucknow" each night before you go to bed?  

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D. G.

Not now. I am reciting the Iliad now. Cant you see the battlements of Troy with Helen looking down from her tower-the ruinous face-  

W. P. E.

Registering? 

D. G.

Again a hit! But 1 shall overcome it. I shall show you Scamander rising from his bed, and the gods on high Olympus-  

W. P. E.

With a close-up of the beard of Zeus? 

D. G.

And Patroclus leaping on the Ilian shore, and Achilles sulking in his tent. I shall make Homer live again.  

W. P. E.

Dear me. Is he dead? Why wasn't I informed?  

D. G.

Love and battle, heroism and beauty, action and emotion, pity and terror-what more can you ask? All the great sum of Hellenic life, its morning glow  

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and its great noon of enviable beauty, shall be in my picture. It shall mingle humanity with the gods again.  

W. P. E.

Through the exquisite agency of cutbacks?  

D. G.

As surely as Marlowe's topless towers-the captions are written for me-rose in the backdrops of your theatres. I shall glorify the mechanics of my art. 1 shall make them invisible and divine. I shall speak in words of white fire-  

W. P. E.

Perhaps. But you will never speak with the tongues of angels-and of men. I will admit the dulness of the theatre if you will grant the absurdity of the mechanics you employ. 1 will ask you only if the moving picture will ever become human?  

D. G.

I do not know. I am not sure that humanity is very translatable. But we have ecstasy. In the projector lies all wonderful adventure, and I go into a dingy, stuffy, moving-picture house with the foreknowledge that something strange and won derful, though it be at times cheap and vulgar, will be shown me. In a drab world the movie is an in  

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strument of miracles. The gross caricatures are perhaps truer than the realism of the theatre. I see a Rabelaisian madness in the millions of broken plates. In a thousand flying custard pies I recognize an eternal impulse of humankind. In the mad comings and goings of impossible characters I still see some persuasion that life is "wanton and wondrous and forever well." Here, in this theatre, life was once glorified. But the grandeur has died out and we must restore it as we can.  

W. P. E.

Not in my time, I fear. For me the past is not dead, so you cannot restore it. And here, in the end, you have my last objection to the moving picture. You are destroying the imagination of mankind. There are no more mysteries since your work has come into being. Everything is visible. Everything is explained.  

D. G.

Except the soul, my dear sir.'  


1 Seven years ago, when this imaginary conversation was published, I wanted to be fair to Mr Eaton and to persuade Mr Griffith to do Helen of Troy. I succeeded in neither, and the document has only historical interest. I do not know Mr Eaton's present st and on the movies, and I apologize to him for retaining his name here. What I do know is Mr Griffith's position. It will be entertaining to compare it with the imaginary future outlined for him above. See page 323. G. S.  

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