Throughout his career, Basil Rathbone was active in the Actor’s Equity Association, the union that represents the interests of stage actors. The Actor’s Equity Association is governed by its own members through an elected Council. In 1948 Rathbone was elected Vice President of the association’s Council. The following year he was elected to serve as recording secretary.
Today’s post, however, concerns an exchange of letters between actor Frederick Kerr and Basil Rathbone in 1922. At the time, both actors were appearing on the Broadway stage in The Czarina: Kerr as the Chancellor and Rathbone as Count Alexei Czerny. The letters were published in the New York Times. Mr. Kerr’s letter appears first:
I wonder if the opinion of an old actor, who in the course of his long career has been everything from a utility man at Wallack’s Theatre to manager of London theatres, and who is now chiefly occupied in playing elderly statesman, would have any weight in regard to the perpetual quarrel which is going on between actors and managers both in England and America, and more particularly in America. Although an Englishman, I am an American actor, and my experience is somewhat extensive in both countries.
No one could accuse Henry Irving of being a mean man, but in my hearing many years ago, when he was asked whether actors should be paid for rehearsals, his reply was, “In my opinion a great many actors should pay very highly for what they learn at rehearsals.” It is because “actors’ associations” and actors’ “equities” and such organizations encourage the incompetence and overcrowding of our profession that I disapprove of them. No examination, no diploma is required of any number of young men and women going upon the stage, who should be in domestic service, and who, as failures, fall back on the help quite unnecessarily provided for them by the actors and actresses who can act. Benevolence? Yes. Help in sickness or misfortune? Yes. But protection of the incompetent? No! Such, at least, is the opinion of one than whom no one has a kindlier feeling for his fellow actors.
New York, Feb. 3, 1922.
Rathbone’s reply was printed about two and a half weeks later. He wrote:
From a Fellow Player.
To the Dramatic Editor:
Having read Frederick Kerr’s letter of February 3, may I, as a Councillor on the Actors’ Association in England and a member of the Actors’ Equity enjoying the generous hospitality of American audiences here in New York, ask you to allow me a short space in your columns?
I am a member of a younger generation and I fully appreciate the fact that Mr. Kerr has had a long and varied experience in the theatre, and has risen to a considerable position in our profession on both sides of the Atlantic.
In view of these facts it seems to me all the more regrettable that Mr. Kerr should have thought it necessary to express in print views highly disparaging to the work of certain American and English actors and actresses who have proved themselves great men and women, as well as successful artists, by their impersonal and whole-hearted support of the Actors’ Equity Association of America and the Actors’ Association of England on behalf of their less successful comrades.
I question the accuracy of Mr. Kerr’s statement that there is a perpetual quarrel going on between actors and managers. I would even go so far as to say there is no quarrel at all. Several members of the Actors’ Association have been expelled for dishonest treatment of their managers; but this, as an alternative, does not constitute a “perpetual quarrel between actors and managers.” If the managers and actors continue to work together, in and out of the theatre, in a spirit of mutual good faith and good will, this undesirable element, on both sides, will, in time, be completely eradicated.
Again I question Mr. Kerr’s accuracy when he states that “such organizations encourage the incompetence and overcrowding of our profession.” The A.E.A. and A.A. stand for equitable treatment for the laborer who is worthy of his hire, or he would not be hired. No man venturing to manage a theatrical speculation is obliged to engage any particular individual, but, if he does, that individual is entitled to fair and equitable treatment, and he or she has not always had it. And very often he, and particularly she, has not been in a position to enforce such treatment. That is why I would suggest to Mr. Kerr that those artists who have been fortunate should sometimes think of those who have been less fortunate; and the element of “good fortune” is as strong if not stronger than the element of ability on the ladder of success.
Statesmen have been to Washington from the end of the earth in a united endeavor to keep the world’s peace. Individually and collectively we can each do our little bit toward this end, and a united federation of the dramatic artists of the world, I feel, would, in its little way, help a great cause. Therefore I deeply regret that an Englishman should endeavor to hang a stone (even though it be only a cherry stone) around the neck of two sincerely altruistic and international associations.
In conclusion, may I offer to Mr. Kerr my sincere congratulation on his high courage in displaying his colossal ignorance of the subject-matter on which he has touched?
New York, Feb. 21, 1922.
Rathbone’s reply reveals his sympathy for his fellow actors, especially those less fortunate than he had been. Rathbone knew what it was like to be a struggling actor, how hard it is to pay the bills when you can’t get employment. He struggled until 1920, when he was lucky enough to have been cast as Peter Ibbetson, and he won acclaim for his performance. His career took off after that. But Rathbone knew that not every actor is so fortunate, and the assistance of the Actor’s Equity Association is essential.