The Business of the Actor

English playwright and actor, Sir Arthur Pinero, writes about ‘The Theatre in Transition’ in 1932.

Marie Bancroft. PRG-280-1-5-179

Marie Bancroft.

As a youth I climbed one night up to the sixpenny gallery of the Standard Theatre in Shoreditch. The Bancrofts and their company were “starring” for a week in that huge house….. From my remote seat I listened to Marie Bancroft as Polly Eccles in Caste. Her lightest whisper was as audible as her loudest tones. She might, so it seemed, have been holding me by the button-hole and imparting something to me that nobody else was expected to hear. Far off as was the stage, I felt that if I had held out my hand I could have grasped hers. And I am sure that every member of the audience had exactly the same sensation.

Her method, acquired after years of training, was the method of Mrs. John Wood, now almost forgotten, of

Vintage postcard of Mrs. (Madge) Kendal, Victorian/Edwardian actress.

Mrs. (Madge) Kendal

Ellen Terry and (both happily still with us) Dame Madge Kendal and Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, and of many others I could cite. It was the method of the old actors and actresses generally – the ABC of their equipment. They knew that acting is an enlargement of life to be viewed from a distance, not a reproduction of nature confined to the limits of the small space of the stage. In the delivery of their dialogue they appeared to be talking as people talk in a room. But they did not make the mistake of pitching their voices as though the walls of the room were the extreme range within which their voices had to travel. In short, they had learnt, in their rough school, that the business of the actor is to act. …..

The theatre is now engaged in a struggle for existence with the films. To all appearance, the fight will be long and bitter. Nobody can say how it will end, what conventions may be sacrificed, what new features may be encountered, what new forms evolved. Those of us who love the play as we have known it must be a little fearful lest it should cease to be a medium for the serious exposition of life and character, or should be allotted only the task of dealing with subjects which may uplift the soul but certainly do not cheer it. Whether eventually the silent films conquer the talking, or the talking the silent, is not, to my mind, of great importance. What is of importance is the fact that the “pictures,” for the moment at any rate, have captured the masses who formerly were the faithful supporters of the regular theatre, and who are now content with the thrills and humour furnished by mechanical process.

Image sources:
Marie Bancroft, State Library of South Australia
Mrs. Kendal, a postcard in my collection.

Creative Difficulties – censorship in the ’30s.

With the coming of peace [after WW1] the Allied Powers abandoned the use of the propaganda film. Producers found they had enough trouble with the censorship in foreign countries without adding to it by making films which would offend foreigners by open propaganda. All kinds of pitfalls – religious, political and moral – have to be guarded against and a company with an eye to the export market must always be on the look-out for incidents that may lead to wholesale cutting or total banning abroad.

A novelist, for example, may make his villain any nationality he pleases. Not so the film producer. So many foreign countries have taken exception to Hollywood pictures on this ground that most villains are now thoroughly cosmopolitan or else American!

Recent examples of censorship [1930s] illustrate the remarkable diversity of objections that are raised by countries acutely conscious of the influence of films on the minds of audiences.
Poland, for example, cut from Showboat the lines in Ole Man River,
“You an’ me, we sweat and strain,
Body all achin’ an’ racked wid pain,”
on the grounds that they were likely to stir up class enmity.

China banned the British Picture Jack Ahoy because the story of a naval life included a burlesque of Chinese pirates.
Mutiny_bounty_stillItaly cut from Mutiny on the Bounty all laudatory references to Britain, shots of the Union Jack, and the final words: “We’re off for the Mediterranean, lads. We’ll sweep the seas for England!” Germany, apart from banning particular films that offend the Nazi viewpoint, imposes a general veto on all foreign films in which non-Aryans take a part either as producers or actors.
Japan rejected the film The King Steps Out because it tended to ridicule royalty. A number of countries, including Italy, Germany and Poland, banned the film version of the sinking of the U.S. gunboat Panay by the Japanese.

Morality lays many snares for the producer. The film Black Legion was changed at the request of the Hays Office (the unofficial film censors in the United States) so that when a girl character leaves the man whose mistress she has been, she asked him for her hat and bag, not her trunk – the idea being to establish that she had not been living with him ‘but just dropped in for a visit’.

Black_Legion_Poster_1937

Humphrey Bogart in ‘Black Legion’. Racism, arson and lynching were o.k. but any hint of sex outside marriage was not!

Gilbert Seldes declares [in Movies for the Million] that during the depression the companies in Hollywood “tottered and one by one put themselves into the hands of banking houses”. Then, when they wanted to make a film to expose the munitions racket, it was found the subject could not be handled without giving offence to the bankers. So the project was dropped.

The list might be extended indefinitely with films in which references to sacred subjects, suicides, torture and whipping, bathroom and bedroom scenes, have incurred the wrath of different censors. No matter how innocent and free from controversy a story may appear, a film producer must handle it with kid gloves and walk on eggs until it is completed.
‘Propaganda Boom’. A. J. Mackenzie. The Right Book Club. London. 1938.

Landseer Part 2 – Last Days

Sir_edwin_landseer

Self portrait

Towards the end of his life Landseer became hopelessly insane and, during his periods of violence, a dangerous homicidal maniac. Such an affection, however, had my father and mother for the friend of their young days, that they still had him to stay with us in Kent for long periods. He had necessarily to bring a large retinue with him: his own trained mental attendant; Dr. Tuke, a very celebrated Alienist [psychiatrist] in his day; and, above all, Mrs. Pritchard. The case of Mrs. Pritchard is such an instance of devoted friendship as to be worth recording. She was an elderly widow of small means, Landseer’s neighbour in St. John’s Wood; a little shrivelled, dried-up old woman. The two became firm allies, and when Landseer’s reason became hopelessly deranged, Mrs. Pritchard devoted her whole life to looking after her afflicted friend. In spite of her scanty means, she refused to accept any salary, and Landseer was like wax in her hands. In his most violent moods when the keeper and Dr. Tuke both failed to quiet him, Mrs. Pritchard had only to hold up her finger and he became calm at once. …….

Edwin_Landseer_1873

Landseer in 1873, the year of his death.

My mother happened to be confined to her bed with an attack of bronchitis when Landseer’s visit came to an end, but she felt no hesitation about receiving her life-long friend in her bedroom, insane though he was, so he was shown in, Mrs. Pritchard, the faithful watch-dog, remaining on guard outside the door. Landseer thanked my mother profusely for the pleasure his visit had given him, and then added “now, will you allow an old friend of over fifty years’ standing to take a very great liberty?”
“Certainly, Lanny,” answered my mother, thinking that he was asking permission to kiss her.
“Thank you,” said Landseer, and at once sat down on her chest and remained there. He was a very heavy man, and my mother in her weak state had not sufficient strength to move him from his position. His weight was crushing her; she was quite unable to breath, and, suffering as she was from bronchitis, she began to lose consciousness, and might have been suffocated, had not the watchful Mrs. Pritchard (who, I suspect, had kept her eye constantly glued to the key-hole of the door) darted into the room and raised Landseer to his feet, soundly upbraiding him at the same time for his outrageous conduct. That was the last visit he ever paid us.
‘The Days Before Yesterday’, Lord Frederic Hamilton. Hodder and Stoughton. 1920.

Landseer’s Lions

Tate; (c) Tate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Duchess of Abercorn and daughter by Landseer. Tate Gallery.

Sir Edwin Landseer, the painter…..was one of my father and mother’s oldest friends, and had been an equally close friend of my grandparents, the Duke and Duchess of Bedford. He had painted three portraits of my father [the Duke of Abercorn], and five of my mother. Two of the latter had been engraved, and, under the titles of “Cottage Industry” and “The Mask,” had a very large sale in mid-Victorian days. His large picture of my two eldest sisters, which hung over our dining-room chimney-piece, had also been engraved, and was a great favourite, under the title of “The Abercorn Children.” Landseer was a most delightful person, and the best company that can be imagined. My father and mother were quite devoted to him, and both of them always addressed him as “Lanny.”

My mother going to call on him at his St. John’s Wood house, found “Lanny” in the garden, working from a ladder on a gigantic mass of clay. Turning the corner, she was somewhat alarmed at finding a full-grown lion stretched out on the lawn.

Trafalgar Square lion

Landseer had been commissioned by the Government to model the four lions for the base of Nelson’s pillar in Trafalgar Square. He had made some studies in the Zoological Gardens, but as he always preferred working from the live model, he arranged that an elderly and peculiarly docile lion should be brought to his house from the zoo in a furniture van attended by two keepers. Should anyone wish to know what that particular lion looked like, they have only to glance at the base of the Nelson pillar.

Vintage postcard of Trafalgar Square, London, by the Photochrom Company.

On paying an afternoon call, it is so unusual to find a live lion included amongst the guests, that my mother’s perturbation at finding herself in such close proximity to a huge loose carnivore is, perhaps, pardonable.
‘The Days Before Yesterday’, Lord Frederic Hamilton, Hodder and Stoughton. 1920.

The photograph of the captive lion was taken by Gambier Bolton, probably in the early 1890s, and published on a postcard by Raphael Tuck & Sons about 1905. This pioneering animal photographer was sometimes described as the Landseer of photography and his original prints fetch high prices from collectors today.

A Graphic World

I quoted some interesting text from an old school geography book called ‘The World’ in an earlier post, but one of the things that prompted me to buy it – for loose change at a second-hand stall – was the graphic art at the head of each continent’s section. Published around 1913 or 1914 by McDougall’s Educational Company Limited, the illustrations suggest the influence of Art Nouveau, a movement that was going out of style by that time. Unfortunately the artist’s identity is confined to the initials A.D. in the corner of each drawing.

graphic_Europe

Europe

graphic_East

The Eastern Continent

graphic_Africa

The Dark Continent

graphic_America

The New World

(Yes, it seems school text books still called Africa “The Dark Continent” in 1914!)

Artistic Licence

These two vintage postcards, published when London’s Admiralty Arch was still “new”, illustrate the liberties an artist could take with a scene compared to a photographer (in the days before Photoshop).

Admiralty Arch2

Tuck’s Oilette number 7975. One of a set of 12. First recorded use 1919.

In this view by H. B. Wimbush, Nelson’s Column has grown to a dizzying height and dwarfs the Arch. The domed tower on the right has not only been stretched but moved several hundred meters to the left. As you can see from the image below, it can’t actually be seen from this position at all. We can only speculate on why the artist put it there. It may have been simply to balance the composition. Digital photographers didn’t invent the art of bending reality – they were just catching up.

A vintage postcard of the new Admiralty Arch, London.

National Series. Published by M & L Ltd.

The truth is less exciting, although this image is so empty it must have been taken on a weekend in the off-season! Not much doubt about which card would have sold best. The message on the back of this one is more interesting than the front. The writer has dated it 16. 6. 16, although the last number has been over-written and could be 19. The message takes up all of the back so it must have been posted in an envelope, and we have no address for the recipient.

Dear Mrs Land,
Just had a note from Mabel to say she has settled down. Will try and get out to Richmond where she lives in a day or so. Everything went off just fine at the wedding and say – Tom Murray is a splendid fellow. Straight as you make them. Will see you soon as we are booked for U.S.A. on 28th this month. Have still the wee mascot so I’m safe.
Kind regards to Mr Land and self. A. R. Don.

It’s a tantalizing hint at the lives of several people and leaves more questions than answers. Was Mr. Don an American soldier being repatriated in 1919 after the war, or a private citizen braving the Atlantic U-boat menace in 1916? Whatever the case, he was superstitious enough to need a lucky charm. Did Mabel find it difficult to settle down and why, and was she the bride? Was the splendid Tom Murray the groom?

Maybe one of you fiction writers out there can exercise your own artistic licence, change the names, flesh out the characters, invent your own answers, and create a short story. I’m sure novels have been inspired by less.

But is it Art?

Professor Henry Tonks (1862 – 1937), a ‘traditionalist’ of the Slade School of Art, was known almost as well for his sarcasm as for his paintings. Here he takes aim at ‘modern’ Art movements and their followers.

henry_tonks_1922

Tonks in 1922

It is interesting, on looking back on the early days of Post-Impressionism, as the new movement was called (a good title seeing that it followed Impressionism and to a certain extent was its product), to remember the attitude of the critics to these new ideas. They had not been very ready in detecting the good work that was being done in France and England in the fifty years before…….. the rule of the critics seems generally to have been very simple : all new work was bad, or at least to be suspected……

Why exactly I cannot say; but their treatment of the Post-Impressionists, and the large number of followers who arose over here [England], was very different. They were going to be well up with the hounds this time, and every new painter had a chance of becoming a genius very early in life.

After the first Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1911*, at the Grafton Gallery, a great many smaller exhibitions were held of the various divisions of the movement, among which were the Futurists, who, alas! now are part of the past; so that the adventurous artist and the critic had a fine time. Gradually a vocabulary was collected to enable the new ideas to be conveniently talked about, and we became familiar with such words as “plasticity,” “three-dimensional composition,” “volume,” “abstract form,” “formal design,” and so on, some of which seemed, on consideration, to be merely a new word for an old idea, others unconvincing, even supposing we understood what was intended to be expressed. But the great adventure had begun, and the critics cheered each little barque as it sailed away into the unknown…….

I am inclined to think that a new type of man altogether began to find his way at this time into the schools, one who would never have thought of trying to become an artist fifty years ago. He was tempted partly by what he found on the walls of exhibitions, feeling that he also might be able to express much that he saw there; he felt that he had no aptitude for drawing; on the other hand, he felt he had ideas, better, perhaps, than the artists he was looking at; a common enough belief among quite intelligent people this, that, if they did paint, they would find much better subjects than most artists, not realizing that it is the treatment of the subject which makes it into a work of art – or not. He saw that no great power of drawing was necessary to produce a picture of ideas, so he made the plunge – perhaps plunge is too violent a word, he sidled into art.

Fifty years ago a man would very likely begin his artist life as an illustrator, perhaps working half his time at earning what he could by drawing for papers or books, and the other half, or less, working in some school to improve his drawing. This course he certainly could not have followed if he had not had much natural ability. Today the word illustrator is a term of abuse; it is now definitely settled to have no relation to art; it is concerned with mere representation……… Who knows, perhaps in a hundred years a child who tries with his pencil to draw something he sees will be hurried off to a psycho-analyst?
‘The Vicissitudes of Art’ (Essay), Professor Henry Tonks, Fifty Years, Memories and Contrasts. Thornton Butterworth, Limited. 1932.

*1905 for the first exhibition and 1910 for the second. See Grafton link.
Photograph of Tonks by George Charles Beresford.