In reference to my post on the Theatrical Syndicate, a friend of mine said:
I am trying to reconcile it with what I read about James O’Neill and Count of Monte Cristo, and Moss Hart’s stories about his early apprenticeships.
Most famously in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, James’s son, Eugene’s, autobiographical play about his family, James laments that his wildly famous production of The Count of Monte Cristo ended up dominating his career because the temptation of easy money was too much to pass up. In 1883, O’Neill first played the title role when the actor originally hired to play it died in the wings after the first performance. O’Neill stepped in, and his performance caused a sensation. He immediately bought the rights to the play, formed a company, and began to tour it around the country. By 1887, his fortune was estimated to be a quarter of a million dollars–no small change in the 1880s. The play continued to be a popular favorite for forty years, and he ended up playing the role over 6000 times during his career. His son Eugene said:
My father was really a remarkable actor, but the enormous success of “Monte Cristo” kept him from doing other things. He could go out year after year and clear fifty thousand in a season. He thought that he simply couldn’t afford to do anything else. But in his later years he was full of bitter regrets. He felt “Monte Cristo” had ruined his career as an artist.Eugene O’Neill, quoted https://archive.org/details/sanfranciscothea194220sanf/mode/1up?view=theater
Note the time frame: O’Neill started touring Monte Cristo in 1883, and the Theatrical Syndicate arose in 1896. By then, O’Neill was a major actor-manager, and he stood to lose a great deal if the Syndicate won. He had a growing family (his third son, Eugene, was born in 1888), and he felt he needed the security that The Count of Monte Cristo represented. So O’Neill joined forces with the other actor-managers who stood in opposition. Eventually, like all the others, he gave in, although one way he devised to escape their clutches was to convert Count of Monte Cristo into a format suitable to the vaudeville stage, which until the arrival of the Shuberts (see below) hadn’t fallen victim to monopoly. For James O’Neill, the birth of the Syndicate was a major blow to his finances.
Moss Hart, whose book Act One described his experiences of co-authoring Once in A Lifetime with George S. Kaufman in 1930, had previously been involved in writing plays for Broadway during the 1920s. By then, things had changed.
The Theatrical Syndicate dominated the American stage for about a decade until the arrival of the Shubert Organization. Lee, Sam, and Jacob Shubert challenged and eventually broke the Syndicate’s monopoly. They did so by buying theaters in New York, and across the country. By the 1920s, the Shubert Organization owned, controlled, or managed over 1000 theaters nationwide.
But let’s be clear: while the Shubert Organization broke the Syndicate’s grip, their intentions and methods were no more friendly to theatre artists than the Sydicate. Successful competition breaks monopolies.
Meanwhile in 1913, after years of secret meetings at The Player’s Club in Gramercy Park just a few blocks from where the Syndicate was born, 112 theater professionals officially formed the Actors’ Equity Association to represent theatre artists against the monopolies. They elected Francis Wilson as their first president. Yes, the same Francis Wilson who had led the actor-manager resistance to the Syndicate in the 1890s. He was still ticked.
By 1919, the Syndicate had dissolved, and producers were competing with each other by “poaching” stars “while facing common problems of censorship, taxation and ticket speculation.” In other words, due to the demands of competition as well as the formation of Actors’ Equity, theatre artists were again starting to get the upper hand. This led to yet another of those famous lunches, this one in Atlantic City, where 40 managers formed the Producing Managers’ Association (PMA) led by–you can’t make this up–Abe Erlanger and Mark Klaw, who had helped form the Theatrical Syndicate. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In early May of 1919, Actors’ Equity sent a representative to meet with the Producing Managers’ Association to demand that Broadway productions be a closed shop that hired only members of the union. The PMA representatives angrily rejected this demand, and in August, actors associated with Actors’ Equity went on strike, shutting down 37 Broadway shows and preventing the opening of 16 more. On September 6, PMA signed a five-year contract in which they recognized Equity and promised better conditions.
So by the time Moss Hart was serving his apprenticeship, the monopoly had been broken and individual producers, including the Shuberts and George M. Cohan, were competing with each other, just more politely once the PMA was established. Actors Equity had established some power, although it wasn’t until the strike of 1929 that it achieved its goals to be the main representation of all actors, producers, radio personalities, vaudeville performers, and agents in the country.
And while the arrival of Actors’ Equity signaled greater power for theatre artists, it did not in any way alter the conditions that had arisen as a result of the birth of the Theatrical Syndicate. Producers and theater owners still controlled what plays were being done, casting was still centralized in New York City, national tours had abandoned the small towns across America, and theater artists still had to ask permission (i.e., audition) in order to pursue their profession. The one thing that had changed was that they now had to be members of Actors’ Equity as well.
The 1920s was a dynamic decade for the American theater: in1929 alone, 233 productions opened on Broadway. Moss Hart, then in his twenties, had the perfect time to serve an apprenticeship: demand was high, and a young theater person could easily get a foot in the door.
In response to my post on Margo Jones and Tyrone Guthrie, Mark Armstrong left the following comment:
And here’s my question: do you think it’s a settled question that regional theaters (meaning most of them) followed Guthrie and not Jones? Because I think of Guthrie’s vision as extreme, even for its day, and certainly when I was coming up, there were significant theaters who leaned more toward Jones’ vision. Certainly, Team Guthrie had allies in Michael Kahn and the Shakespeare Theatre, etc, but Team Jones had Greg Mosher and then Bob Falls at the Goodman and more. It seems like some theaters did make a go at each vision, some did a better job with either portfolio than others and the whole enterprise was really hard to sustain for everyone.
What Mark says is true: Guthrie and Jones represent extreme ends of a continuum, and very few regional theaters followed Guthrie entirely. In fact, given that Jones’s preference was for a mix of classics and new plays, one might say that Jones’s model ultimately has been more influential than Guthrie’s classics-only approach. The issue is one of emphasis: yes, Jones also included classics in her seasons, but they were secondary to the production of new plays. Over the years, the Goodman, for instance, has reversed that emphasis, it seems to me. (One might make a better case for Steppenwolf Theatre as inheriting the Jones mantle.)
Over the years, however, it seems to me that new plays have appeared less and less frequently at regional theaters. But I should qualify that somewhat: each year, there seems to be some new play that became a hit on Broadway or Off-Broadway during the previous season that a slew of regional theaters schedule. Usually these plays have small casts and budgets (in many ways, Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife is a perfect example), and come with the imprimatur of Tony or Obie or Drama Desk nominations or awards. To some extent, they are low-risk choices because theaters can sell the New York reputation. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that most of these plays were initially developed by regional theaters, often in partnership with commercial management. So somebody had to take a risk at first, but those that follow are, well, followers. Also, it’s not that these plays are unworthy of production–that is certainly not the case at all–but if they were part of a season that included a couple new plays that had been discovered by the local theater, I think Jones would be far happier. The goal is to create more opportunities for contemporary playwrights to be produced.
Regional theaters seem to be walking a knife’s edge these days as far as their finances are concerned. They’ve built large theater complexes with lots of seats that have to be filled in order for their budget to balance, government and foundation support is down, and that makes new plays much harder to consider. So they do new play readings or workshops in a rehearsal room in order to convince funders that they’re not nearly as conservative as they look, which is not the same as doing a full-blown production. Unfortunately, this is the nature of large institutions. Clayton M. Christensen, in The Innovator’s Dilemma, famously described this tendency in reference to the business world, describing how established and successful companies get complacent and fail to recognize disruptive innovations until it’s too late. And I’m not certain that the current institutional theater will avoid this fate (see their reaction to digital theater that took off during the pandemic).
<– IYKYK: David Hare on Play Development
1 thought on “answering a few questions”