The Seven Lively Arts

Gilbert Seldes

Plan For a Lyric Theatre in America
(p. 161 - 173)


I AM going to establish a lyric theatre in America. Not an art theatre and not a temple of the drama, and not an experimental theatre. A lyric theatre where there will always be Mozart and Jerome Kern and Gilbert-and-Sullivan and Lehar--and NEVER by any chance Puccini or the Ring or Ibsen. I shall avoid the good things and the bad alike in the seri ous forms; I shall have Russian Ballets and American ballets. The chief thing is that it will be a theatre devoted to all the forms of light musical entertainment and to nothing else. My theatre will put an end to those disheartening revivals (or r esurrections) of popular musical shows because the shows will be kept alive, just as "grand" operas are kept alive by appearing in a repertory. Into the repertory I shall incorporate-as soon as their independent existence is at an end--such successes as < I>The Night Boat and such failures as The Land of Joy. There will never be a chance for fashion to destroy things essentially good. I shall produce new pieces, too; and if they are good they will run along with frequent presentations until they are absorbed in the general scheme. And I think I shall have pas tiches frequently--of revues and topical productions which aren't, as entireties, capable of continuing.

That is the abridgement of a scheme, and I say I shall do it in the hope that someone else, even if it be the Messrs Shubert, will do it instead. Because I like musical comedy and it annoys me that I can


hear Un bel di (which I want never to hear again) fifteen times a season, and cannot hear The Sun Shines Brighter or The Ragtime Melodramaever again. And I know that our present type of musical comedy is so good, so vigorous and snappy, that it tends to kill off its predecessors; a repertory is the only thing; and the usual objections to repertory will fail here, because in this case the devotees of musical shows will know in advance that "it is going to be a good show." I don't know whether the bill should change every day or every week; I feel certain that there ought to be half a dozen centres across the continent, and two or three touring companies. Further details I cannot give now. I shall try to find some means, however, of distinguishing between the second-act finale of The Mottled Mask ("On to the ball at the palace of Prince Gregory") from the second-act finale of The Madcap in Motley ("On to the ball at the palace of Prince Gregory"). It is not part of my scheme to keep bad shows alive.

The rare entertainment such a theatre will afford can be guessed if you look for a moment at the changes in musical shows since l900. We were then coming out of the Gilbert and Sullivan tradition and (after a great vogue of extravaganza) coming into the Viennese mode. It is the fashion now, especially in France, to belittle the Viennese operetta, to call its waltz song heavy and its structure a bore. Possibly these things are true; but Vienna has been


the home of operetta for over a century and has done well by itself most of the time. Illumination of this predominant influence you can get by going to the Redoutensaal and hearing a performance of The Marriage of Figaro, and within the next few days hearing Die Fledermaus and whatever new piece Lehar or Fall or Oscar Straus has composed. For what one seldom knows from its loftier production is that Figaro is in essence and detail a musical comedy and that almost all we know of the form stems from the combination effected there by a great composer, a fine dramatist, and an exceptionally skilful librettist.1" The imperial ballroom with its tapestried walls, its small stage on which only conventionalized scenery can be set, its divided stairway coming down on the stage, is a setting admirably contrived to give the whole loveliness of operetta. The last scene is in the garden of the count: six boxed trees and moonlight create the effect. And at the last moment, the happy ending, the electric lights are thrown on, the vast crystal chandelier lighting up over the garden, and the event recedes into its real, its secondary framework, as entertainment. One recognizes it for what it is--the gay and exquisite counterpart of grand opera, from which neither the Savoy nor the Viennese operetta ever departed. Musically the Viennese type corresponds more clearly to Italian, the Gilbert and
'For da Ponte's share in the work, cf. Edgar Istel: Das Libretto, which analyzes the changes made in Beaumarchais' play.

Sullivan to French opera. The absurd conventions of production are taken bodily from the older and more respected type. The same thing is as obviously true in Cimarosa's Marriage Secret as it is in The Chocolate Soldier--the latter being, except for a weaker libretto, a perfect parallel to Figaro. (And nearly as worthy of the perpetual life which is apparently to be denied it.)

It is still unnecessary to describe the Viennese operetta in detail, for immediately after the war it came again into vogue and one or two excellent examples--The Last Waltz was one of them--re-established some of its ancient prestige. It is at bottom produced for the music. In one the music may be chiefly sung, in another danced. Everything else décor, story, humorous episodes--is secondary. Recently an effort has been made to change this. Oscar Straus' Torichte Jungfrau at the Grossesschauspielhaus (Reinhardt's catacombs in Berlin) was all production--and nearly all dreadful. Lehar's latest, Das Gelbe Jacke (not, however, our Yellow Jacket) is entirely in the pure Viennese mode, and the Vienna production (February, 1923) indicates how Viennese operetta is improved in transit to our shores. For our production of musical comedy is almost equal to our production of revue, which is incontestably the finest in the world. With their emphasis on music the Viennese shows naturally centre about the famous waltz-song; and one good waltz has been able


to make a show a success. Rudolf Friml made a success of High Jinks with a fox-trot.

The English type as we know it, including Caryll and Monckton and Rubens, has had for thirty years the Savoy tradition. This requires a plot of more frivolity than the Viennese, and lyrics of greater humour. The successes have been moderate--"I've got a motto" is no masterpiece. The degree of fun has been higher and the seductiveness of the music less. It was perfectly natural that (with Adele to help them on) a combination of virtues should take place in America in the beautiful Princess Shows of Comstock and Gest, where the talents of P. G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, and Jerome Kern, stage-managed perfectly by Robert Milton, produced a fresh and attractive type of musical show which for five years progressed in popularity-but had few imitators and suddenly seemed to disappear. It was, in fact, transformed into something else, something good. But one should look at the original closely to discern its exceptional virtues.

Each of the Princess shows had a reasonable, but not serious, plot. The advantage of a plot isn't, as one often hears, that it gives the appearance of reality to the piece, for who should expect that? There is no reason why a musical comedy should not be wholly preposterous, dramatically or psychologically, provided, like Iolanthe, it has a logic of its own. No. The advantage is that when there is a definitely per-


ceptible structure everything else arrives with greater intensity of effect. The best of the Princess shows had the weakest plot, for Leave It to Jane was based on Ade's College Widow, which has no great quality. Since songs and dances had to take up much time, this plot was gratifyingly reduced to a few essential lines and played without sentiment. The result was a rush of action in which everything found place. The later pieces were on librettos by Guy Bolton, suggesting French farces, and full of neat arrangements. None of them was stupid. They all gave place for Mr. Wodehouse's exceptional talents as a lyric-writer. He is as an English humorist superior to most, and as a master of complicated, original, amusing rhymes is the best man in the business. A special quality of making fun is discernible in all his lyrics, and he does good parodies, like When It's Nesting Time in Flatbush. The Princess type made rather a fetish of simplicity (I quote from memory)
Although the thing that's smart is
To stay out all night on parties,
I'll be sitting, with my knitting,
In the good old-fashioned way,

and of sentiment:

The breeze in the trees brings a scent of orange blossoms
And the skies turn soft and blue,
When there's no one around except the girl you love
And the girl you love loves you,

which was often not amorous and rose to as fine a thing as The Siren Song:
Come to us, we've waited so long for you,
Every day we make a new song for you;
Come, come, to us, we love you so.
Leave behind the world and its fretting
And we will give you rest and forgetting,
So sang the sirens ages and ages ago.

There was also patter as in the Cleopatra song:

And when she tired, as girls will do,
Of Bill or Jack or Jim,
The time had come, his friends all knew,
To say good-by to him.
She would not stand by any means
Regretful, stormy, farewell scenes,
To such low stuff she would not stoop
So she just put poison in the soup.

When out with Cleopatterer
Men always made their wills;
They knew they had no time to waste.
When the gumbo had that funny taste
They'd take her hand and squeeze it
And murmur, "Oh, you kid!"
But they none of 'em liked to start to feed
Till Cleopatterer did.

and in each of these types Wodehouse was faultless.

Fortunately for him and for us these songs were set to a music which in addition to being delightful


let the words appear, and occasionally was so fluent, so inevitable, that it made the words seem even simpler and more conversational than they are. Jerome Kern composed nearly all of the Princess shows and the collected scores are impressive. He is the most erudite of our simple composers and he manipulates material with inordinate skill. He can adapt German folksong (Freut euch das Leben underlies Phoebe Snow); he didn't do so well by Kingdom Comin', which was botched and cut; he also under stands Sullivan. But his best work, The Siren Song, The Little Ships, The Sun Shines Brighter, have a melodious line, a structure, and a general tidiness of execution which are all their own. The Siren Song corresponds exactly to the Viennese waltz, but both the words and the music are impersonal; they are a gentle hymn to seduction, with humour. Scattered between languorous rhythms are bursts of gaiety, like a handful of pebbles thrown against a window which doesn't open-for the song ends in a tender melancholy. It is a real achievement. Compare the lines I have quoted above with "Come, come, I love you only," from The Chocolate Soldier--phrases you would expect to arrive at the same musical conclusion. The crash of "Oh, Hero Mine!" in the second is good drama, saved from being too obvious by being sung to the coward Sergius and not to the protagonist Bluntschli. But in comparison the gentle ending of The Siren Song is, as song, superior: "So

sang the Sirens, ages and ages ago"-and you take it or leave it. The music, at least, is not forcing your hand.

The Princess shows never had any great stars; instead, they had the one quality which always makes for success--esprit de corps. In each the company was aware of the nature and quality of the piece it was playing, and it worked in variations of that genial and sophisticated atmosphere. It was simply against the tone of the Princess shows to be dull; and I, who like nearly all musical shows, found in them my greatest delight.

They passed into something else because they were exquisitely proportioned on a small scale--the scale, by the way of The Beggar's Opera, which they resembled--and the whole tendency of the time was toward elaboration. They involved small choruses, little eccentric dancing, and required no humorist hors de texte. I count it a triumph for Mr. Dilling ham, as well as for the others concerned, that they have been able to preserve so much of the Princess in some of the Globe productions. The best of these, I think, is Good-morning, Dearie. It has an adequate plot; it has room for Harland Dixon, a fine dancer; for Ada Lewis, an expert broad comedienne; for Maurice and his partner, whose name I don't remember; for a large dancing chorus and for stunts; better still it did little to hinder Jerome Kern. It was here that he took the most famous of waltzes


and implicated it masterfully in a blues; and here that all the seductiveness and gaiety of the Princess music returned with Ka-lu-a and Didn't You Believe? There were a few faults in the production; the dècor lacked freshness, although it didn't actually off end; the Chinese scene was hackneyed. But on the whole it is the best musical comedy I have seen since the Princess shows.

What forced us to be elaborate was not the memory of the Viennese type, but the growing complexity of revue, always cutting into musical comedy. It should be noted that Around the Map (which I hold the best musical comedy-not operetta-I saw before the Princess shows) first brought Joseph Urban into the field, taking him from the Boston Opera House and pushing him on the way to Ziegfeld, where he was tardily recognized by the Metropolitan for whom he has made Oberon! Around the Map had some twenty scenes, it dealt with a trip around the world in search of safety socks, and was all gay (with Else Alder), all good music (Caryll) and only the beginning of elaboration. But Mr. Berlin's two shows and a host of others indicated that to survive musical comedy would have to appear lavish. Comparatively simple shows still occur--Tangerine was one; but we seem to be in for something fairly elaborate-in music as in the Le-Baron-Kreisler pieces, in dècor as in the Shubert-Century productions, in stars and stunts as in Dillingham's.


I do not pretend to cover the ground, and to name the names, in this sketch; not even to characterize all the types. I don't know what to say about Mary, in which George M. Cohan worked a chorus into a state of frantic energy and Louis Hirsch provided The Love Nest; nor of twenty other individual successes. One composer remains whose work is often so good, whose case is so illuminating, that he must be considered. That is Victor Herbert. It should be said at once that even long after his early successes he composed a fine musical comedy, The Only Girl. The difficulty about Mr. Herbert is that he has succumbed to the American habit of thinking that grand opera is great opera. I have heard him at one of his premières speaking from the conductor's dais to assure the audience that the present piece was in the high line of operetta, that more pieces like it would put an end to the vulgarity of musical shows. The regrettable fact was that The Madcap Duchess put an end to nothing but itself ; I recall the name, that Ann Swinburne was in it, and that it had a good patter song; the rest was doleful. Whereas two weeks later in the same house I heard The Lady of the Slipper, in which Mr. Herbert, setting out to write an ordinary simple musical show, was a thoroughly competent composer, full of ingenuity and interest and taste and invention. If he had only taken his eyes off the Metropolitan Opera House he would probably have been the best of the lot to-day. He suffers--

although he is vastly respected--because he failed in respect to the fine art of the musical show. The wonderful thing about that art is that it is made up of varied elements which are fused into something greater than themselves. There is a song and dance by Julia Sanderson, who is not a great artist; or the sudden apparition of a little man pursued in a harem, bounding upon a scarlet pouffe six feet in diameter and nuzzling like a dog--Jimmy Barton, in fact, who is one; and the rambling story told by Percival Knight in The Quaker Girl or the drunken scene by Clifton Crawford in The Peasant Girl; there is In the Night, from The Queen of the Movies or Johnny Dooley falling out of the clerk's desk in Listen, Lester; there is Donald Brian, the perpetual jeune premier, or the amazing Spanish song in Apple Blossoms, or a setting designed by Norman-Bel Geddes or costumes by Helen Dryden or the Sandman song from The Dollar Princess, or the entrance of the Bulgarians in The Chocolate Soldier or the wickedly expert prosody of Brian Hooker. What is it takes all of these and composes them into something beautiful and entertaining? Skill in production is part of it, but not all, for the same elements: colour, light, sound, movement, can be combined into other forms which lack that particular air of urbanity, of well-being, of rich contentment and interest which is the special atmosphere of musical shows. I can only find a word and say that the secret resides in it-high

spirits. For a musical comedy, even a sentimental one, must be high-spirited in execution--that was the lesson of an unsentimental one, The Beggar's Opera; and at the same time there must be some courage, some defiance of nature and sound sense, a feeling for fantasy, which means that the life of the spirit is high, even when the life of the body is in chains. It is for this freedom of the spirit, released by music as always and diverted by all the other elements in them, that these shows are cherished. It is, naturally, as a counter-attack on solemnity that I am going to found my theatre.

Back to projects
On to next section