Ill advised by their loving friends, the Hull House Players have emerged from the comfortable and sympathetic seclusion of their little stage on Halsted street and have come downtown to act in the cold blue light of Fine Arts Theater. The purpose of this venture is, we believe, partly to illumine the town and partly to earn money for the execution of some wild project the players have of going to Dublin to act at the Abbey Theater.
Neither the present invasion of the professional field by the Hull House troupe nor its proposed descent upon the Irish capital can be commended. Both smack of effrontery.
As disclosed at Hull House the efforts of these hard-working, painstaking amateurs aroused interest and deserved respectful consideration. Behind their work was a fine, unselfish aspiration. It represented a valuable means to culture and through its artistic significance was slight it had social aspects -- using the word social in its broad and important meaning -- that were most stimulating. The environment furthermore, was suitable and sympathetic and the audiences were composed of persons who came knowing precisely how much and how little to expect.
Those interesting evenings at Hull House have been frequently and fully described in THE RECORD-HERALD, and whenever the performances disclosed a touch of poetry or a suggestion of power that fact was given enthusiastic record. In truth, we fear that the theatrical reporter of this journal may be charged with being one of several Frankensteins who have unwittingly [cooperated] in the creation of a being that now is released to plague the public. If that has happened the Frankensteins will atone in bitterness and boredom for their mistaken zeal.
For what with this band and that band and the other band of amateurs popping up to act for a dollar on the public stage there is grim prospect that life is to become a round of public school exercises. The thought is intolerable.
The fact is that many of those earnest dabsters have been made much of until they have lost all sense of proportion with the result that they grow tedious. Mention of them in the same breath with the Irish players from the Abbey Theater -- a mention that is made by the sponsors of this unfortunate engagement -- is an impertinence.
Except for the emphatic and musical delivery by Miss Helen Silverman of a passage of imprecation there was nothing in last night's presentation of John Masefield's fantastic horror, "The Tragedy of Nan," to differentiate the Hull House Players from a provinical touring company of the fourth or fifth rate. That is nor their fault, and we are not blaming them. We think that in view of the opportunities they have had they often have done well, and always they have wrought conscientiously in interesting material. But they are submitting themselves now in an aspect entirely different from the modest one they made known at Hull House, and if anything like standards is to be maintained in the practice of the difficult art of acting there must be truth and exactness in the estimates of acting.
The minor players whose awkwardness and extravagance greatly diminished the effect of the opening scenes of the good melodrama called "The Argyle Case" last Sunday evening were severly admonished by the reviewers. Those players would have every right to complain if offenses similar to their passed unremarked in the record of a performance by other players who submit themselves in a professional aspect.
The presentation of "The Tragedy of Nan" was not unintelligent, but it possessed very little craftmanship. It was utterly deficent in pace, in easy variety and accurate interplay. It had one spurt of power -- in Miss Silverman's treatment of a very thankful passage in which she could ring the changes on "gold! gold gold! little pieces of gold!" but of mellowness and symmetry it was devoid. As a whole it sounded two notes decisively. One was a strident whine, the other was a sweet and tedious drawl. Given as a stictly professional booking in the course of a season's events at the standard theaters the performance would not have held up for half an act.
It is not enough that a thing shall be done with awkward literateness, as an awkward, untutored person might do "in real life," as the saying is. The thing must be done so that the eloquence of it -- its bearing upon life -- shall be either gracefully or pointedly brought out. That is what acting is, and its purpose is not the reproduction of literal incident, but the marking of the emphases that make life mean something. The routine of life is extremely tedious: so is the routine presentation of life by honest persons, who, through lack of vision, of executive facility or of training in expression, bungle or falter in the presentation.
The mechanism of acting is a matter of pace and emphasis, and pace and emphasis are not easily mastered.Drama brings out the emphases of life, and acting is supposed to bring out the emphases of drama.
Mr. Masefield's "Tragedy of Nan" is a curious, extravagant, uneven work that ranges from the extremely matter-of-fact tp the wildly mystical, and attains success in neither genre. It unfolds the incessant wrangling and bitterness that goes on in an English peasant houshold presided over by a female Murdstone. She allows her husband to take his niece into the house after her father has been hanged for sheep stealing (the period is 1810, when certain hideous English laws of capital punishment were still on the statute books) and she devotes herself to deviling the girl for three long acts. The woman is too malevolent, too hypcritical and too evidently a figment of horror to carry conviction. And her infernal machinations arouse slight interest.
In the end she succeeds in winning the girl's lover for her daughter, the lover revealing himself as an incredible poltroon. A benevolent government, learning that it has hanged the unfortunate's father by mistake, offers £50 in atonement. The beneficiary, far from being grateful, becomes insanely ironic, kills her former lover "that he may never make another woman as miserable as he has made her," and wanders out into the night to drown herself. The mistress of the house scrupulously gathers up the money, fellicitating herself the while on a good riddance in the matter of the fate of her husband's ward. She is, by the way, presented thoughout the drama as a woman of the best repute in the village and much esteemed by the parson. The play contains some imaginative touches that seem more valuable than they are because they are only half understandable, and some of the realism is both sound and affecting. As a whole it is a raw, ugly, and diffuse composition that does not hang together.Other plays that the Hull House people are offering at Fine Arts Theater this week are John Galsworthy's "The Pigeon," in which they are not seen to advantage, and the same author's "Justice," of which they give a creditable performance.
JAMES O'DONNEL BENNETT.