I began Arthur Hopkins’ little series of papers on the theatre, Reference Point (Samuel French; $2.50), with a slight impulse to quarrel with him. I ended with a great measure of admiration.
The admiration transcends my pleasure in the excellent things Hopkins has to say about the theatre, though the book is replete with memorable aphorisms. It is an admiration for the spirit of the man—a spirit now all but extinct, not only on Broadway but generally in American life.
The producer today is, all too frequently, not even an honest dilettante. Ht is usually an ignorant hanger-on who caught a free ride on the merry-go-round which the theatre became during the war. In these years, the producer was no longer a man who wed himself to the theatre for better or worse, a man who had paid court to it through many years of apprenticeship; he was only a man who believed he could make a good thing on the basis of a lucky break, a pick-up affair. Producing plays was no longer a profession, but a racket.
The older generation of pros, of which Arthur Hopkins is one of the few remaining, were an altogether different breed. Even when they were not artists themselves, they were genuine show people with an enthusiasm foir their work, a kind of imaginative largesse, a rough and ready quixoticism, which made themtruepersonalities and fit companions for the artists of the stage.
As a commercial producer—without the aid of subscription audiences, guaranteed subsidies of any kind or advance critical blurbs—Arthur Hopkins, a recruit from journalism and vaudeville, came to a theatre that had fallen into a stale provincialism and gave it a new life. He produced Tolstoy's “Living Corpse” (“Redemption”); a season of Ibsen with Nazimova; an interesting Danish play, “The Deluge,” which failed twice but brought Pauline Lord to New York; Gorky’s “Lower Depths,” also twice tried and both times unsuccessful, “Richard III”; “The Jest”; "Hamlet” with John Barrymore; “What Price Glory?”; “Anna Christie.” Under Hopkins’ management, Robert Edmond Jones, one of the few authentic scenic artists of the American stage, did his first important work.
I go into this ancient history (theatrically the early twenties seem eons away) because very little is remembered in the American theatre. This failure of memory—which is an indifference to everything that does not produce the immediate buck—is one of the reasons why, despite the never failing flow of talent onto our stage, so little of value is ever built in our theatre, so little remains. We are forever beginning over again from the first step.
Such people as Hopkins, however, are themselves a little to blame for this. He who speaks so beautifully of the past, whose tribute to the vaudevillians is as sound as it is touching, emphasizes “feeling,” “inspiration” and other such intangibles above everything else, and speaks almost contemptuously of craft and stage technique. This is destructive doctrine. It represents the “mystic’s” (or amateur’s) negligence of means. It is a confusion that mistakes the small change of trivial effects and petty tricks for the real technique that helps “love”—rightly stressed by Hopkins —to function.
As long as consciousness in the theatre is regarded as dross, as long as all discipline, method and organization are held to be fruitless, and only “genius” and other God-given virtues are dutifully prayed for, so long will the American theatre continue to deteriorate. Without the “religious” (inspirational) element, there can be no ultimate value in art; with nothing but a trust in this element, there can be neither religion nor art.
Hopkins’ sensibility is superior to his mind. Too many in the theatre today have substituted shrewdness for mind and possess only as much sensibility as will pay. My hat is off and my gratitude profound to the American producer who, in 1948, writes in all sincerity, “There is a great difference between feeling that a work must be right and that it must succeed. If success had been the goal, little of the world’s art would have been created.” All honor to Arthur Hopkins!
This article originally ran in the July 26, 1948, issue of the magazine.