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CHAPTER IX The Drama
The Americans are nothing if not fiercely and incorrigibly theatrical. It is true that they have only one pose, namely, the pose of being gloriously and unaffectedly American. Yet in all the large issues of life they display a strong sense of the stage, they revel in the more obvious situations, and they have an innate love of a good curtain.

These facts are strikingly illustrated in the American law courts, where all small matters are managed on the lines of comedy, and all large matters on the lines of hot and lurid melodrama. The recent Thaw trial may be taken as a typical case in point, so far as melodrama is concerned. The speeches of counsel on both sides might have been written specially for the Adelphi Theatre, and every gesture of the rival declaimers would seem to have been modelled on the style of the adipose itinerant actor who plays “Othello” in penny gaffs.

So far as the real stage is concerned, the Americans are to be credited with quite a number of startling innovations. They were the sole inventors of the Deadwood Dick kind of play, which[82] involves the tooling on to the stage of an ancient and battered mail coach, accompanied by feats of unthinkable skill with the shooting irons. I believe, too, that they were the only begetters of the drama that has for its central attraction a real set-to between bona-fide bruisers, who fight with the gloves off and punish one another for all they are worth under American rules.

Then, of course, I must not forget to mention the world-renowned “Tank Drama.” It appears that an American manager happened once upon a time to find himself in a second-hand galvanised iron store. Here he discovered an enormous iron tank which he found could be purchased for a song. In a fit of abstraction, and in pursuance of the American tendency to buy anything and everything that can be had dirt cheap, he purchased the tank. And having it on his hands and no particular use for it, he hired a dramatist to write a play around it. To this woolly genius a tank of course suggested water and high dives and swimmers, and before you could say hey, presto! Mr. Manager found himself in possession of a sensational, if somewhat humid, melodrama, the like of which had never before been seen on any road.

The Tank Drama toured the States for years on end, to the approval and delight[83] of American audiences, and for anything I know to the contrary, it is still running, the tank itself having by this time, no doubt, grown a little leaky.

In England the public is familiar with melodramas in which the principal part is taken by steam-rollers, circular saws, fire-engines, and other pieces of mechanism. The Tank Drama, however, was the progenitor of them all. It was from the Americans, also, that we learnt to grace our melodramas with the presence on the stage of real live cows, racehorses, ducks and geese, faithful dogs, dancing bears, blue monkeys, and educated asses.

The American public prides itself upon the rapidity with which the national dramatists, from Clyde Fitch or Augustus Thomas to David Belasco or Theodore Kremer, can turn out almost any species of dramatic work to order. On the production of a five-act tragedy recently in New York, it was announced that the author had written “the whole contraption” in under the twenty-four hours. I can well believe it. The majority of American plays that come to us on this side bear unmistakable indications of having been written in haste, and with a single eye to getting through with the labour. This is no doubt due to the circumstance that[84] American managers have a mania for producing new pieces, and that the average run of such pieces is exceedingly short. Authors do not feel it to be worth their while to take pains, particularly as the majority of them have to subsist by dressing up in dramatic guise some new and big mechanical invention or some cause célèbre or tragedy in real life or some stupid story, which happens to have caught on, but which they know cannot in the nature of things keep the stage for more than a few weeks.

Although one is continually hearing of the triumphs of this or that American actor or actress in Shakespearean parts, it is a solemn fact that the average of Shakespearean acting in America is very much below that of any other country in which Shakespeare is consistently played. I cannot, of course, forget that America produced the late Mr. Phelps and gave us Miss Mary Anderson, whom all the world admired. But these are the exceptions. The rule is that the American actor who plays Shakespeare is a bull-necked, unlettered mummer who has served his apprenticeship to the circus business or to the plumbing, and roars out Shakespeare’s lines with a nasal intonation and an absolute lack of understanding. Nine out of ten[85] American actors ought to carry a net with them.

I am aware that it may be contended that the foregoing aspects of the American drama are things of the past, and that in all essential respects the theatre in America is nowadays on an equal footing with the theatre in England. In a considerable measure, this may be so, due, no doubt, to the mixed beneficence of the blessed brotherhood: Frohman, Klaw and Erlanger.

Yet there can be no getting away from the fact that the American plays and American companies that are from time to time brought to London for our edification fail woefully to interest us.

In London, quite lately we have been presented with two plays of American extraction and rendered by American companies. One of them “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch” to wit, at Terr............
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