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A Subsidized Theater

I found an interesting article in the September 9, 1936 edition of The Era. Written by Margery Rowland, it’s called “The Salvation of the Stage,” and features lengthy quotes from our favorite actor, Basil Rathbone. She writes that Rathbone displays enthusiasm and love for the theater. Here, then, are Rathbone’s comments on the subject of a subsidized theater:

There are two ways in which the theatre can be saved. By “saved” I don’t mean financially prosperous. I mean reestablished as a rich and fine art that has almost the prestige and significance of a religion. And one of the ways is the return of the patron.

The theatre isn’t a broad popular entertainment on the people’s own level. It shouldn’t be—it won’t be in the future. We’re moving forward to the time when it will take its place side by side with the arts of music and painting at their highest. It is not becoming more popular. It is becoming more select, more exclusive. It won’t be of and among the general public. It will be above them, and as it rises above it will grow in importance and influence and artistic value.

It will become to the twentieth century what the Church was to the twelfth.

Nowadays, religion has lost its hold, the clergy are no longer powerful in themselves, superstition has been discarded. There is nothing above themselves for people to hold on to, to look up to—nothing to guide and teach them, to touch their lives at every point, to have meaning in all their joys and sorrows, and yet to be still aloof and worthy of deep respect. There must be this higher something in everyone’s life—parenthetically, I think that Communism’s great mistake lies in trying to establish a dead level of equality that, in effect, forbids a man to look up or revere—and I believe that it is the theatre’s place to supply this lack in modern life.

But this very raising of its status will narrow its public, and deplenish its revenue still further. The obvious solution to the problem is a subsidised by men of wealth whose primary object in doing so is the support and nourishment of a fine art and not the increase of money.

It’s not so impossible and idealistic as it sounds. Look how much money pours into the theatre every year from outside sources—reckon how many lose thousands of pounds in backing inferior plays, over and over again. A concerted appeal for the return of the private patron, for the return of the private patron, for good productions, surely would bring some response from a few of these.

It is only reasonable to suggest that having lost money in staging second-rate stuff which they hoped would be box-office successes, they should try their hand at backing really worth-while plays that may, in spite of managerial doubts, turn out to be worth-while financially as well. Even if they aren’t, their patrons would at least have the satisfaction of knowing that their money had been well-spent in a fine cause.

It’s only going back to the old traditions of the theatre. In Shakespeare’s days, and later, the theatre was almost wholly supported by men of wealth and taste. Why shouldn’t this state of affairs return? In New York there is already a certain amount of private subsidising—the Theatre Guild is one example.

The second way in which the theatre could be saved is by the spread of Leslie Howard’s idea—that the men of the theatre who make money in films should put a certain proportion of it back into the theatrical world every so often. Howard, who has been making so much in Hollywood that his income tax runs into six figures, is spending enormous sums on his coming “Hamlet.” The production will cost about £40,000 and the running expenses will be tremendously heavy.

He’s financing it entirely himself, without a thought of getting even a penny of it back. His whole idea is to give to the theatre some of the money which he has won in films, and which it needs so badly. If there were only two or three such men returning their services and their wealth to the theatre, say once in three years, and each doing two or three productions, it would be enough to put it on an altogether different plane.

The purely business man has no place in the theatre. It’s not a paying business in that sense. Money may come through it, but only incidentally and secondarily. You can never bank on your returns, as you can in the films. A Hollywood company, for instance, makes ten class “B” pictures a year, each costing 100,000 dollars, but this is covered, before they’ve finished, by the advance booking, and each makes a profit of 100,000 dollars. There’s a million dollars straight away. In the theatre, if you reckon throughout purely in terms of pounds, shillings, and pence, you’ll never get anywhere. You must have genuine enthusiasm, even to recklessness.

Diaghileff, the most magnificent man of the theatre I’ve ever known, was in his finest days lavishly extravagant in production, choosing the best composers, designers, choreographists, absolutely regardless of cost. Henry Miller, a really first-rate producer, used literally to jump on his hat if anyone mentioned the price of a property he wanted for one of his pieces. We’ve got to get back to the richness and beauty of the pre-war theatre—the actor-manager period—and that means that the cautious business man must be shaken off. Or rather, under proper conditions he would drop off of his own accord, leaving only those who are devoted to the theatre, heart and soul, who have the theatre in their blood, like Katharine Cornell, who refused an offer of half a million dollars for two films, or John Gielgud, or Noel Coward.

Perhaps somebody’ll ask why, preaching this sort of doctrine, I’m in films myself. But I didn’t go into them primarily for the money. I’m filming because I find it extraordinarily fascinating experimental work, and, moreover, when I’ve been in films as long as Howard has—five years—I’m going to do what he is doing—put some of my earnings back where they belong and are needed—in the theatre. I’ve been working in the studios for eighteen months now; in three and a half years I plan to return to the stage, financing my own productions. In England? Most certainly.

A scene from The Swan (1924)

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