Saturday, 15 March 2014

MODERN AMERICA FROM WITHIN.

By J. K. W. TAYLOR.

THE impossible has happened. An American has publicly, blatantly, and ferociously condemned America —condemned its taste, its morals,its theatres, and its mode of life. With rapier, baton, club, and heavy artillery. George Jean Nathan—for he is the hero in question—assails his countrymen, their drama, their books, their mental insignificance, and their passion for vulgarity as they have never before been assailed, and probably never will be again. And the attack, be it noted, is not on the part of an unknown or an upstart. Granted that he is the personification of egotism, and the world's best exponent of self-praise. Mr. Nathan has a reputation founded upon years of hard work, hard study, and hard fighting for the arts, and the art of the theatre in particular. Not only has he an astonishing grasp of American drama, but he is equally at home in the European and British theatres. Nor do the barriers of language, either international or profane, appeal to have any terrors for him. A Lithuanian play or a Montenegron farce, for example, present no difficulties to him, and before it is produced he knows more about it than the author. Or he says he does, which now-a-days is almost the same thing. Nathan is a human paradox, in that while he professes to be the greatest living champion of art—art in its wider meaning—he has a very poor opinion of its purposes, objectives, and results. In a sense, he is the destroyer of his own arguments and theses—an assassin who kills to satiate his lust for murder. Even the theatre, which he so ardently loves, falls a victim to his sadistic knife. Just listen to him for a moment. Hear what he says in his latest sensational book. "The House of Satan," which Alfred A. Knopf recently published, to the consternation of Americans and the delight of Englishmen.

" Corrupt Drama."

"IT has always been the mission of the theatre," he writes, "to reduce in so far as it lay within its power, the manners and morals of the community. Obviously, I do not speak of the debased uncivilised theatre, but of the theatre that is artistically on the highest and finest level. That for more than two thousand years men who have not taken the trouble to understand the theatre have sponsored the opposite point of view and have seen in the playhouse a medium for the uplifting of the human psyche, and table manners through the operation known a  dramatic catharsis, indicates only that it has taken the twentieth of the centuries to arrive at other astonishing discoveries in the world of high art than the radio, coloured moving pictures, and the Czech drama. "When I speak of the theatre as a corrupter of morals, it is of course as a synonym for drama. And when I speak of drama, I speak at the same time of most of the other arts, for the accomplishment it perhaps not always the intention, of all art is the lowering of human virtue, in the commonly accepted sense of the word, and the conversion of men from metaphysical and emotional Methodism to metaphysical and emotional Paganism . . .the effect of truly great art, I persuade myself to believe, is to induce in the be holder a sense of inferiority, a sense of the pettiness and futility of his own life, and, inducing these, to cause him to try to forget his triviality and despair in rash impudent and deplorable actions, manners and thoughts, which he would otherwise not engage. It stings him to the quick, challenges him, jeers at him, 'Come on worm !' it cries, 'Try to look into   paradise !' The worm, humiliated but rambunctious, thereupon digs his toes into the ground, cocks back his head, strains the heavens with his eyes—and has his pocket picked."

After going on to sneer at the popular belief that there is such a thing as "intelligent drama," and proving to his own satisfaction that all fine art not only insults the intelligence, but deliberately spits in the eye of intelligence, the author discusses at embarrassing length the "taste" of the average American citizen. It is doubtful whether so damning an indictment of social decadence has ever been written. 

A Vast " Slaughter-house "

HE compares the United States to a vast slaughter-house of taste unequalled in degree and magnitude anywhere else in the civilised world. It presents an unbroken succession of abattoirs, each bursting with the profits of its depravity. " Not only does he find the news-stands throughout the land stacked with hundreds of periodicals, beside which the cheapest and most vulgar publications of 20 years ago were a symposia of transcendent aesthetics, but he finds the cinema, the radio, and an endless succession of bedroom plays, combining to completely "mormonise" the community. Instancing the plight of the theatre, he emphasises that there is no such institution in America outside of New York. In the season that begin on September 1, 1925 and ended on June 1 1926, just one admittedly good play survived. All the others without exception failed to draw sufficient audiences to keep them going, and had to be recalled and thrown into the storehouse. When the average citizen in the United States goes to the theatre, Nathan tells us, his taste is not for good drama, but for "trash." That trash may take the form of a moving picture, a vaudeville show, or anything, "just so" —so long as it makes no call upon him for imagination, an appreciation of beauty, even a modest amount of intelligence, or an artistic sensitiveness  "above that of a Bologna sausage." Throughout the country countless new vaudeville theatres, as costly and vulgar as the movie palaces, "have sprung up on the graves of dramatic theatres, and nightly discharge their reinforced batteries of concentrated guano against what is left of native theatrical good breeding." In Boston, which all the world was inclined to venerate for its purity of taste, things have come to such a pass we are informed, that no attempt is made any longer to show anything above a third-rate standard. Even good films are not tolerated. A recent investigation by a representative of the New York "World" proved that the literary discrimination of this blue-blooded city is  practically at vanishing point. The books in greatest demand—and those who demand them include doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business men—are those which deal exclusively with Wild West and detective plots. "Confession" books and erotic works treating of sex, are tremendously read, and the favourite "poet" of Boston is Robert Service, whoever that individual may be. Among the works barred by the Public Library are Dreiser's "Sister Carrie" and "Jennie Gerhardt," W. S. Maugham's "Of Human Bondage," and everything written by James Joyce, George Moore, Sherwood Anderson, and Aldous Huxley. Only two copies of Thomas Hardy were sold in this cultured metropolis in the six months from January 1 to July 1. And "what is true of Boston," laments poor Mr. Nathan, "is true of the rest of America. The stars in the nation's flag have slowly turned into so many elk's badges. The taste of the nation has be come the taste of its shoe dealers and bathers. . . . A dirty bedroom farce, an all-star fake, a leg show, a dramatic gim-crack, or a piece of trumpery featuring a conspicuous trouper—these are here and there able to draw audiences outside of New York, Chicago, or one or two other centres, but anything of moderate merit, save, perhaps occasionally, a Walter Hampden Shakespearian troupe, doesn't stand any more chance than a Ku-Kluxer in Siberia. The movies, nine hundred and ninety nine out of every one thousand of which are the veriest dramatic ditch water, have slowly drowned the dramatic taste of the nation until, to-day all that is left of it is a gurgle and a few bubbles.

First Night Audiences.

AND, according to this inspiring critic Mr. George Jean Nathan—somebody by the way, once referred to him as "this Anti-Christ from Baltimore"—these terrible evils are not confined to the stage and screen. They have spread to the front of the house. Contemplate for a moment his vision of a typical first night audience. As we know this particular audience the world over, can usually be depended upon to behave well, dress well, and think well. In most places it is composed of men and women in comfortable circumstances who take an artistic interest in plays and the theatre, even though they sometimes lack discrimination. In America apparently most of these decorous persons went down with Charles Frohman in the Lusitania, for the author frankly states that they are no longer anywhere to be seen. He doesn't profess to know what has really become of them. He merely gives it as a fact that they have disappeared. Their places are now filled, it appears by "others" — unmistakable "others" too. The seats formerly filled by "well-dressed, clean-looking, cultured men and women are now occupied by moving-picture magnates and their agents, groping for possible material for their screens, by sandwich restaurant operators, luxuriating in unaccustomed dinner jackets, and by modistes  . . . . The dots represent an elaboration of the term "modiste," which it would not be modest to quote. Suffice it to say that the completed sentence does not in the least suggest that fashion parlours in the States pride themselves exclusively on their sale of hats and dresses.

For 295 pages Nathan inveighs against the cherished conceits of the United States of America, and there is hardly a complimentary word to be found anywhere. If one liked it would be easy to describe the author as an incorrigible hedonist, but his frankness is irresistible. In spite of the urge to laugh, one goes from chapter to chapter convinced that after all, if there is any truth in these matters, it is as well to feel grateful to a man who is not afraid to "let himself go." For it takes no mean courage for an American to take up the cudgels against his countrymen, and it is so rarely done that the results are not entirely devoid of delight to a citizen of the British Empire, who knows what it is to be criticised from within." 

We are told that both Nathan and Menchen—and they are intellectual twins —"lead the revolt against things as they are." Society can have no objection to a revolution of that kind if it guarantees an improvement. Even if it cannot offer such a guarantee it is at least amusing, and that surely is something to be thankful for in these hard times.

 The Brisbane Courier 26 March 1927,

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