The Assembly Hall of the United Charities Building was crowded to the doors by the audience which gathered to hear the addresses at the third of the series of monthly conferences held under the auspices of the Charity Organization Society, Tuesday morning, March 25.
Miss Jane Addams, of Hull House, Chicago, spoke upon the subject, "What the Theater at Hull House Has Done For the Neighborhood People." "I should prefer" she said in opening her address, "to change the wording of this topic, and tell you what the people of the neighborhood have done with the theater at Hull House, for the theater has been turned over to the people, and they for the most part have been the actors upon the stage." The theater was established because of the influence this institution has upon the working people, all of whom attend as frequently as they are able to afford the small admission fee charged at the cheaper places of amusement. The theater is a strong force in the life of the ordinary working boy, and has its influence upon all members of the social class of which he is a part. It forms to some extent their concept of morality, and in a greater degree shapes their outward manners and conduct. It rivals the schools in its influence, which, indeed, is protracted far beyond the school age.
The theater at Hull House has been a ready and potent means of training the young people of the neighborhood in manners and personal refinement and courtesy, a result which could not have been achieved by direct instruction with this end in view. The theater has been as well a means of education in the broader sense. It has been the means of connecting the lives of the people with the life of the world, not only with that outside of their present environment, but with historical events and achievements. It has served to break up the feelings of isolation. The toilers in the sweat shops for instance, who with their needles are unable to compete with the producers of clothing made by machine labor, have learned that they are not a special class of unfortunates who are being exploited [page 2] for the benefit of another class of society, but that their experience is only like that of other groups whose industries have been revolutionized by the introduction of machinery. They have come to see, accordingly, that he is wise who readjusts himself to meet the changed conditions, and their welfare and happiness has been promoted.
This is only one instance of similar lessons that have been taught in the only way in which a great many of these people can be reached. "For," said Miss Addams, "the number of those who like to read, has been greatly overestimated."
All plays at the theater are presented by the Dramatic Association, whose membership is drawn from the various clubs which meet at Hull House. The scenery, for the most part, has been constructed and painted by the members of the Association, and some have become so proficient in dramatics as to be able to drill the members of the junior clubs.
"One of the first plays we gave," said Miss Addams, "was Longfellow's 'Golden Legend.' This play is one in which the good angel is dressed in white, and is never wrong, in anything, and the bad angel is clothed in red, and is never right. There is no mistake about it. It is all very plain. It was played for several nights until the performers declined to go on with it. It was as hard on their feelings as upon those of the audience.
"We experimented a long time before we found the kind of plays the people wanted, and when we found them, they were the best and the truest plays, dramas of life, strong, sympathetic, and very real. I am sure the Mr. Howells will forgive me if I say that his were failures with us. The people did not see the point. There was one, for instance, in which a man invited to a dinner could not find his dress suit, and as the time passed his anxiety and alarm increased. But our audience gazed at his dilemma in open-eyed amazement.
"'Why in blazes,' said one, made outspoken by his disgust, 'don't he go in his shirt sleeves?'
"The people of our neighborhood cannot sympathize with such troubles. They don't see why one coat at a dinner is not as good as another."
One of the most successful of the plays presented was an adaptation of a Greek play. The actors were drawn from the street vendors and tenement-house population of the neighborhood. Those in charge of the production were greatly surprised to find that some of these seemingly ignorant people already knew the lines which were assigned to them, having studied the classics as a part of their early education in Greece. Three days after the parts were assigned, the first rehearsal was held, and everyone was able to repeat his lines without mistake. The Greeks took great pride in the play which had a long run. After deducting the expenses for mounting the play, which were heavy, a clear profit of $300 remained. This, it was suggested, should be divided, a part to go to the Greek Church in the vicinity, and a part to the Hull House. The players, however, would not agree to this, saying that they had been amply repaid by the opportunity, as they said, of "upholding the honor of Greece," and insisted upon devoting the entire profits to Hull House. [page 3]
The theater affords an excellent opportunity for the patrons to learn to speak English. Moreover, it affords them entertainment, which Miss Addams believe is the only way in which to secure their interests, for "unless you entertain the people, they will not profit by coming, nor carry away a lesson."