Sitting in Judgment with the Gods

Source: Channing Pollock, extract from ‘Sitting in Judgment with the Gods’, in The Footlights, Fore and Aft (Boston: Richard G. Badger/The Gorham Press, 1911), pp. 383-402 [originally published in Smith’s Magazine, March 1906]

Production: Lured from Home, Thalia Theatre, New York, November 1905

Text: The Thalia, where I began my travels, is full of contrasts. Evidences of departed grandeur
elbow old dirt and new gaudiness. In the lobby, with its marble floor and lofty ceiling, stand hard-faced officials in uniforms that glitter with gold braid. Lithographic representations of various kinds of crime and violence hang on the walls, advertising the attraction to follow that holding the boards. The auditorium is architecturally stately and old fashioned, bearing an outline resemblance to the colosseum at Rome. The ground floor is a succession of steps, on each of which is a row of seats, while three balconies of horse-shoe shape afford opportunities to the patron whose financial limit is ten, twenty or thirty cents. There are queer little boxes on either side of the stage, which slopes perceptibly and has in its middle a prompter’s hood — survival of the days when parts were so long, and so many had to be learned each week, that no actor could be trusted out of sight of the man with the manuscript. The Thalia is a theatrical anachronism, dilapidated, decayed and degraded. It is a royal sepulchre containing rags and old iron, a family mansion utilized as a boarding house, a Temple of Thespis managed by “Al” Woods and devoted, on the night of my visit, to the representation of a stirring comedy drama in five acts, entitled “Lured From Home.”

The audiences at the Thalia are composed principally of peddlers, longshoremen and girls from the sweat shops. Farther up town one sees sailors and mechanics, with a sprinkling of families large enough, numerically and physically, to delight Roosevelt. Everywhere small boys abound and Jews predominate. Perched aloft in the gallery, one picks out scores of types and observes dozens of humorous incidents. Down town there were men who took off their coats and kept on their hats, probably for no better reason than that they were supposed to do neither. A fat negress sat next to a loudly dressed shop girl, who was too absorbed to draw the color line while the performance was in progress, but glared furiously between acts. The contention that the Third Avenue is “a family theater” was supported by a mother who nursed her baby whenever the curtain was down and the lights up. Two precocious youths discussed the “form” of certain horses that were to race next day, while their “best goils”, one on either side, alternately stared at each other and at their programs. Reference to this bill of the play, printed by the same firm that supplies programs for the better class of theaters, disclosed the fact that a large part of the pamphlet was devoted to articles on “What the Man Will Wear” and “Chafing Dish Suggestions.” It seemed to me that these indicated utter lack of a sense of humor on the part of publisher and manager. “The Man” at the Third Avenue probably wears whatever is cheapest, and I can’t fancy the woman feeling a keen interest in oyster pan toast or orange mousse.

Barring a little difference in millinery and a difference of opinion as to the indispensability of neckwear, the audiences at all these theaters are very much alike. They read pink papers assiduously before the play begins and eat industriously throughout the intermissions. Melodrama seems to affect the American appetite much as does an excursion. You may have noticed that lunches appear the moment a pleasure trip begins, and every cessation of histrionic action at a popular-priced house is a signal for the munching of apples, candy, pop-corn, peanuts or chewing gum. Most of the material for these feasts is furnished by small boys who begin the evening selling “song books” and conclude it dispensing provisions. Just as the orchestra emerges from under the stage the merchant appears, taking his place at the foot of an aisle and unburdening his soul of a carefully prepared announcement. “I wish to call your attention for just about a few minutes to the company’s ‘song book'”, he commences. These volumes invariably are marked down from ten to five cents, and, for good measure, the vendor throws in an old copy of The Police Gazette. Sweets arc his stock in trade between acts, though one also has the pleasure of hearing him announce: “Now, friends, I’ve a postal card guaranteed to make you laugh without any trouble.”

Reserve is not a characteristic of these gatherings. They hiss steamily at what they are pleased to consider evil, and applaud with equal heartiness that which seems to them good. Especially remarkable instances of virtue also bring out shrill whistles, verbal comment and the stamping of feet. The management maintains in the gallery a play censor with a club, who knocks loudly against the railing when he feels that these evidences of approval are passing bounds. What would not your two dollar impressario give if he could transplant this enthusiasm to Broadway? How gladly Charles Frohman or Henry W. Savage would trade his surfeited first night audience for one of those which requires only an heroic speech to wear out its individual hands in frenzied applause!

They are a queer, child-like lot — the people who compose the clientele of the Murray Hill and the Third Avenue. Intermissions have to be made short for them, because they have not the patience to wait for setting scenery, and he would be an intrepid dramatist who would put sufficient faith in the intensity of a situation to trust to its keeping them quiet in the dark. To an assembly at the Thalia the turning out of the lights for the husband’s confession in “The Climbers” would have proved only an opportunity for making weird noises without danger of being “spotted” by the “bouncer.” Their tastes are primitive and their sympathies elemental. They have no time for fine distinctions between right and wrong; a character is good to them or it is bad, and there’s an end to the matter. Ready and waiting with their pity, one cannot help believing that they feel only on the surface, since they are quite able to forget the tragedy of one moment in the comedy of the next. I have seen them sob like babies at the death of a child in the play and break into uproarious laughter a second later at the intrusion of the soubrette. Their prejudices are explicable, but unexpectedly strong, favoring the unfortunate under any circumstances and finding vent in bitter hatred of the prosperous. They are the natural enemies of the police officer, and, by the same token, friends to the cracksman or the convict who expresses a particle of decency. Physical heroism is the only kind these men and women recognize, and emphasis rather than ethics influences their verdict on questions of virtue and vice. Apparently the element of surprise is not a dramatic requisite with them, since every habitual playgoer of their class must know by heart every melodramatic theme in existence, together with its incidents and its outcome. Undivided in their approval of the noble and their disapproval of the ignoble, one soon learns that their ideas on the subject are theories not intended for practice. The man who most loudly applauds defence of a woman on the stage is not always above disciplining his wife vigorously when he gets home. “Zash right!” I heard an inebriate call to a melodramatic hero who had spurned the glass offered him. “Zash right! Don’t you tush it!”

I have said that the stories and situations of melodrama must be familiar to the folk who attend such performances, and I speak advisedly. One melodrama is as much like another as are two circuses. Drifting into the American one night just as the players were indulging themselves in that walk before the curtain which is their traditional method of acknowledging a “call”. I might easily have mistaken the principal pedestrians for the characters I had seen fifteen minutes before at the Third Avenue. There they were without exception — the sailor-hero, the wronged heroine in black, the high-hatted villain, the ragged child, the short-skirted soubrette, the police officer, the apple woman, the negro and the comic Jew. Some of these types, notably the apple woman and the negro, are as old as melodrama, while others are but recently borrowed from vaudeville. Whatever their origin, they are the handy puppets of the man who writes this kind of play; identified the moment they step on the stage and hissed or applauded according to the conduct expected of them.

This sameness of character is paralleled by a sameness of dialogue that is amazing. Few melodramatic heroes do very much to justify their popularity, but all of them have a pugilistic fondness for talking about what they are going to do. Certain phrases favored by this class of playwright have been used so often that the most casual theater-goer will be able to recall them. “I can and will”, “my child”, “stand back”, “on his track”, “do your worst”, “you are no longer a son of mine” and “if he knew all” are convenient terms for expressing a variety of violent emotions. Most of them mean nothing specific, and herein lies their recommendation. It is so much easier to say “if he knew all” than to figure out precisely what part of a purple past is of sufficient theatrical value to be dilated upon in a speech.

Apropos of purple pasts and of heroines in black, it is worthy of note that propriety in the hue of one’s garb is another of the inviolable conventions in the cheap theaters. Olga Nethcrsole probably thought she was doing a wonderfully original thing some years ago when she announced that she would wear various colors to typify the regeneration of Camille, but a chromatic index to character antedates the English actress by many decades. To anybody acquainted with sensational plays a white dress means innocence, a black dress suffering and a red dress guilt just as infallibly as the cigarette habit had a penchant for sitting on the arms of chairs indicates utter depravity in a female. If you told an Eighth Avenue amusement-lover that good women sometimes smoke and often sit on the arms of chairs he wouldn’t believe you.

With puppets and speeches to be had ready-made, the receipt for writing a melodrama would not seem to be particularly complicated. The favorite story for a piece of this sort concerns two men — one poor and good, the other wealthy and bad — who love the same girl. For that reason and because the hero “stands between” him and “a fortune”, the villain plans to “get him out of the way.” The soubrette saves the intended victim from death, the would-be assassin is disgraced, and the play “ends happily.” There may be a dozen variations of this theme, such as an effort to send the hero to prison “for another’s crime”, but, until managers found a gold mine in the lechery of their low-browed patrons, it formed the central thread of four offerings out of five. The stock plot now-a-days is the frustration of sundry attempts to sell women to waiting despoilers; the dramatization of what the newspapers describe, hideously enough, as “white slavery.” This is an unpleasant subject in any form, but the part it plays in current melodrama is so gross and evil that I shall risk referring to it again in another paragraph.

The “fortune” that serves as bone of contention in the tale related above never happens to be less than a million. Such trifling sums as fifty thousand pounds or a hundred thousand dollars are given very little consideration in melodrama. Everyone of importance lives in a “mansion” and carries about huge rolls of greenbacks. When the villain tries to murder the hero he resists the temptation to stab or shoot him quickly and quietly, having found the expedient of binding him across a railway track or throwing his insensible body on a feed belt more conducive to a thrilling rescue. Handmade murder has no place in melodrama; all reputable scoundrels do their killing by machinery. The strongest situation possible in the sensational play is that in which the comedienne flags the train or stops the belt. Next to this “big scene” is the inevitable encounter between the villain with a knife, the unarmed hero, and the heroine, who arrives with a revolver at what Joseph Cawthorne calls “the zoological moment.” I have seen the superiority of the pistol over the dagger demonstrated five times in a single melodrama, yet the villain never seems to profit by experience. One would think he would learn to carry a “gun”, just as one would think that the hero would learn not to leave his coat where stolen bills might be placed in the pockets, but the playwrights of the popular-priced theaters seem to model their people on the dictum of Oscar Wilde, who said: “There are two kinds of women — the good women, who are stupid, and the bad women, who are dangerous.” Notwithstanding their crass improbabilities, many melodramas of the better sort are interesting and not without occasional evidences of clumsy originality and crude strength.

Comments: Channing Pollock (1880-1946) was an American playwright and critic. Its subject is the cheap theatres of New York and their audiences’ taste for melodrama. The Thalia, also known as the Bowery Theatre, was located on the Bowery in Lower East Side Manhattan, New York City. Lured from Home (author unknown) opened at the Thalia on 20 November 1905.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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