Cinema in Theatre, 1915-1927

A review of “Looking to its Laurels”: Representations of Cinema in Theatre, 1915-1927, by Leslie Hunter.

According to Leslie Hunter and other theatre historians, the American stage experienced a “golden age” between World War I and World War II, characterized by an unprecedented period of growth in both the volume of productions and critical evaluations of quality. The mechanisms for this dual ascendance have been significantly considered by scholars for many years, with Hollywood cinema, as a cultural form newly available for mass consumption, generally associated with the new economic conditions that drove the quantitative uptick. Little scholarly attention, however, has been paid to the role that Hollywood, industrialized and institutionalized in the mid-teens, had in determining the amplification of quality discovered by critics and audiences in new “downtown” theatres such as those inhabited by the Provincetown Players and the Neighborhood Playhouse. Building on the work of theatre scholars such as David Savran and Dorothy Chansky and employing theories of cultural ascendency developed by sociologists and cultural historians such as Paul DiMaggio, Lawrence Levine, and Pierre Bourdieu, Hunter’s dissertation addresses itself to this lack. In general, Hunter considers “the way cinema shaped the cultural practices of theatre” (p. 26). In particular, his study focuses on the plays, audiences, critical responses, performance spaces, and creative personnel of the emergent little theatre movement and especially the Provincetown Players, critically tracing the “counter-maneuvers made by theatre practitioners in reaction to the movies” (p. 1) in the years between Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Jazz Singer (1927; the first “talkie”).

In his Introduction, Hunter articulates the early history of Hollywood, a lesser-known narrative for theatre historians, and defines several terms that he identifies as key to his study, including three he sees as largely interchangeable: “little theatre,” “highbrow theatre,” and “literary theatre” (26), all of which can be used to describe a theatrical movement characterized by “national non-commercial ‘artistic’ theatres, whose locus was in downtown New York City” (48). He also initiates here a discussion of the social anxieties inscribed within American cultural production of the 1910s and 1920s, a project he continues more significantly in his first chapter. Arguing that the creation of the new, literary theatre “was made symbiotically through the projected anxieties of critics, the artists themselves, as well as their audience” (35), Hunter traces out, in Chapter One, three separate but significantly overlapping anxieties: the loss of tradition in the replacement of the written word by the visual imagery of the movies; the loss of economic power to Hollywood and the corresponding loss of cultural capital to the new immigrant, lower-class aspects of society that both supported (mass audiences) and determined (studio moguls) their fare; and the fear that this new “mass” audience was innately unable to differentiate between fantasy and reality. In order to simultaneously emphasize the imbricated nature of these anxieties and the symbiotic connections between artists, audiences, and critics, Hunter performs close readings of three plays from this era, all of which he claims are uniquely emblematic of the literary theatre and its response to the rise of movies as a form of mass entertainment: Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (1923) and The Subway (written in 1924/staged in 1929), and Francis Edward Faragoh’s Pinwheel (1926/1927) – the latter two relatively unknown even to theatre scholars. Here he pays close attention to the place that the cinematic occupies within the text (noting, for example, that Pinwheel is the first American play to stage a scene within a movie theatre) as part of an effort by the writers to create a new cultural form (the little theatre) and activate a new audience for that form by marking the cinema and its audiences as inferior to the stage. “[A]udience creation,” he emphasizes, “entailed more than putting people in seats, it was, in a sense establishing a kind of taste” (p. 47). A key aspect of this process of taste-making for Hunter was the valorization of the “literariness” of the text by the play’s author as counter-point to the cinematic; this move, perhaps not unexpectedly, resulted also in the endorsement of the writer-as-artist by critics. Though the histories he relates rely predominantly on secondary sources, Hunter engages directly with primary sources in his focus on the critical responses to these plays, written by such theatre critics of the time as Brooks Atkinson, Alexander Woollcott, and Kenneth Macgowan. Hunter then argues that, by reacting to Hollywood, the artists of the new literary theatre were not only able to differentiate themselves from Broadway, but also “allowed [American] theatre to become widely accepted as on par with European theatre … as allowable for intellectuals and people of taste” (p. 66).

In his second chapter, Hunter offers additional contextualization to Chapter One’s consideration of the little theatre’s treatment of Hollywood’s audiences by analyzing Broadway’s representation of Hollywood players – the moguls, producers, and actors that were lampooned and satirized in comedies of the same period. As illustration, he discusses a selection of these comedies, paying special attention to the coding of characters aligned with Hollywood in terms of class, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Looking at The Demi-Virgin (1921), Merton of the Movies (1922), Polly Preferred (1923), and Once in a Lifetime (1930), he further argues that these productions were funny to contemporary audiences “because the objects of the satire are Hollywood personalities recognizable to the audience” (p. 80). This satire, moreover, worked to expose audiences to the constructedness of Hollywood’s own media representation and, through this, “grant a certain power to unmasking these Hollywood fictions: by doing so, they situate the audience in a new position of power” (p.81) that, like the little theatre, worked to create a new hierarchization within American cultural production.

In his final two chapters, Hunter returns to his focus on the little theatre. In Chapter Three he differentiates the physical spaces and theatrical architecture of the new “picture palaces” of the teens and twenties with the those of the little theatre, arguing that the American theatre’s redefinition of cultural hierarchy and positioning in relation to Hollywood was not just located in its texts, but also importantly in the way its performance spaces themselves embodied that act of distinction, transforming the lack of economic capital into cultural capital. He juxtaposes, in particular, the Rialto Theatre, which opened in Times Square in New York City in 1916, with the three theatres occupied by the Provincetown Players between 1915 through 1923. Not only did these “little” theatres clearly differentiate themselves from Broadway theatres, they specifically “performed a kind of gilded poverty that catered to highbrow and bohemian audiences” (p. 125) in specific contrast to the way that Hollywood’s newly built movie theatres performed a sense of opulence that was as much a part of the attraction for their audiences as the films that they showed.

In his final chapter, Hunter performs a close reading of The Hairy Ape (1922), written by Eugene O’Neill and staged by the Provincetown Players. His principal focus here is the lead actor, Louis Wolheim, and the tension produced within the play by the audience’s intertextual familiarity with his films. Though he claims that a “reading of The Hairy Ape as exemplary of both expressionism and naturalism is now routine,” he advances the idea that Wolheim’s acting and visage (or “physiognomy” in the language of the day) possessed a preexisting naturalistic aura as a result of his cinematic persona that complemented the use of realistic vernacular in the play and that the writer and director purposefully contrasted with the production’s non-realistic mise-en-scène and performance styles that were indicative of the new “American expressionism” in the theatre. This unique combination, for Hunter, allowed O’Neill to incorporate the reality-effect of cinema, through the body of Wolheim, into the hyper-reality of the expressionistic stage; the combined result was, for critics and viewers, access to a new meaning system in American theatre derived specifically from the new American cinema.

Throughout his dissertation, Hunter productively employs the idea of an “opportunity space,” advanced by Paul DiMaggio to describe the media environment formed in the wake of a popular new media which set the parameters for artistic and cultural creation in other media, to analyze the little theatre movement’s successful self-promotion through a series of juxtapositions against the established media landscape – including the newly established Hollywood. In his short Conclusion, he usefully compares this opportunity space and that theatre’s productive response to it to similar, but more recent, media moments: 1960s art cinema as a reaction to television and our current “golden age” of TV in response to the internet.

In “Looking to its Laurels”: Representations of Cinema in Theatre, 1915-1927, Leslie Hunter effectively adds to the scholarship on American theatre history and, in the process, shines new light on the beginnings of the little theatre movement, the Provincetown Players, and (to a lesser degree) Eugene O’Neill. Scholars interested in these specific historical players and the American theatre more generally will gain here considerable insight into the cultural dynamics of that period. In addition, scholars interested specifically in silent cinema and the origins of Hollywood will find something worthwhile in his close analysis of its impact on American theatre. Finally, Film and Media Studies, American Studies, and Cultural Studies scholars and historians interested in intermediality will all find valuable examples and analyses in Hunter’s work that productively extends existing studies of power negotiations across media industries.

W. D. Phillips
Visiting Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies
English Department
Texas Tech University
wyattdphillips@gmail.com

Primary Sources

Hinsdell, Oliver. Making the Little Theatre Pay; a Practical Handbook. New York City: S. French. 1925.
Kenneth Macgowan Papers 1915–1970. UCLA Library Special Collections. Charles E. Young Research Library. Los Angeles, CA.
Original play manuscripts
Provincetown Players, The Minute book of the Provincetown Players, Inc., 1916 Sep 04- 1923 Nov. 16. Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library. New York, NY.
Period reviews of the plays mentioned in the review

Plays discussed

The Demi-Virgin (1921) by Avery Hopwood
Merton of the Movies (1922) by George Kaufman and Marc Connelly
Polly Preferred (1923) by Guy Bolton
The Adding Machine (1923) by Elmer Rice
Pinwheel (1927) by Francis Edward Faragoh
The Subway (1929; written in 1924) by Elmer Rice
Once in a Lifetime (1930) by George Kaufman and Moss Hart

Dissertation Information

Stony Brook University (State University of New York). 2013. 164 pp. Primary Advisor: Susan Scheckel.

Image: Vintage Movie Theater Dresden, ©iStock.com/reinobjektiv

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