Child Labor on the Stage, July 1911

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Hull House, Chicago.

Our child labor law in Illinois does not permit any child under 16 to work between the hours of seven o'clock in the evening and seven the next morning. This, of course, applies to theaters as well as to other places in which a child may engage. And so it comes about that while children between fourteen and sixteen may be engaged in the afternoon performances, no child under sixteen can play at night. Of course, this makes a good deal of confusion when plays come on from New York and other cities in which children are permitted to appear, and arrive in Chicago, and the child is thrown out of commission -- if I may use that phrase; and we are continually told that because of this fact, some of the best plays will never be given in Chicago.

We had a very good test the first year the law was in force, when Maude Adams was giving her very justly famous and charming play, "Peter Pan." She came the first night with the children with whom she had been playing in New York. It seemed to us a very crucial moment. The tickets for the first performance had been sold for the benefit of the Children's Hospital Society, a very popular society in Chicago, and a very appealing society, of course. The state factory inspector, however, did his duty, and took the children off; or rather, served notice that if they appeared again the management would be brought into court and fined. The next evening the play went on; it was not taken off the boards, as we had been told it would. Three other young people, over sixteen, to be sure, but appearing very much less than that, went on with the play with great brilliancy and great success. In fact, they were so much nearer the same size with Maude Adams that there were heretics who claimed the play more successfully carried out the illusion which the playwright had intended than had been done in New York with the smaller children. [page 2]

And so we have gone on challenging one play after another, and almost always the play remains, and almost always it has a long run, and always the audience sees it with the satisfaction of knowing that no child is being sacrificed for its enjoyment.

We hear, of course, in all of this discussion that we are Philistine, that we do not realize that a child must be trained in his art, and that, in permitting no child to appear in Chicago, we are announcing ourselves as a people who do not understand what a wonderful thing dramatic art is.

Now, some of us believe very much in the value of dramatic art, and in the power which the drama has, not only to portray life, but to make us self-conscious in regard to the great things which life is evolving all about us and which we cannot see until they are epitomized and put upon the stage.

But simply because we do thus believe in the social power of the drama, because we are willing to stand by an old statement of Aristotle's that the drama is valuable as a vicarious experience, where things may be tested, where society and the individual may find out the reaction of settled methods and certain modes of living without putting to the test the great, practical concerns of life -- simply because of that, we insist that a child must be carefully prepared and must enter the drama as an artist and not as a premature imitator of the manners and tricks which have been taught to it by someone else.

We have schools of dramatic art in Chicago, as New York has and all other large cities. At Hull House, if I may talk shop we have a little theater in which children appear usually twice a year, in which all sorts of little dramas and festivals are given. But the children giving these are trained as they are trained in music, as they are trained in drawing, as they are trained in any other art which children are taught. And these dramas come as recitals, quite as the school exhibitions of our younger days were given. The child in the meantime lives at home. It goes to school. If it falls back in its school record, it is not permitted to appear in a second drama. It is never permitted to appear again if it seems over-excited or over-stimulated. It is never permitted to appear to excess; and this dramatic art is taught, as other art is taught, as a part of life and the preparation for life which is coming to the child later. [page 3]

Now, we ask ourselves, why is it that the stage people insist -- for there certainly are great artists who do insist -- that a child should appear upon the stage prematurely? To my mind, there are two distinct reasons:

First, the child, simply because it is not an artist, breaks through the illusion which the stage is producing and reaches the audience with a certain -- shall I say, touch of nature? -- to which the audience responds very quickly, especially if the rest of the play is not very good. We like that direct appeal. We say: "How charming the child is! How naturally it does this and that!" And we call it realism. It is not, of course, realism in the sense in which an artist would use that word; it is imitation. But it crosses the footlights; "it gets over," as the theater people would say, and reaches us. That, of course, is not holding the stage up to its highest artistic possibilities. It is allowing the stage to slump; it is permitting the stage to break through its illusion; whereas, we ought to hold up the stage to an even cast, to that which would make the drama a unit, and give us a unified impression.

Doubtless, the other reason is that the child itself has a certain sense of enjoyment which sometimes reaches the audience. That is true for a little while. It is only true during the first few weeks of a child's life upon the stage. Very quickly the part required of a child is quite as monotonous, is quite as repetitious as the work which a child does in the factory or any other place where no skill is required, but a carefully-taught task is performed over and over again.

Nearly all the children now playing are supplied from certain agencies in New York. It is said, I believe, that eighty-seven [percent] of the children who are found in the traveling companies of America are supplied from New York. A child is taught one part. When he grows too old for that part, he is not kept with the troupe, or inducted into another part; because the troupe goes on playing the same play over and over again. He is sent back to New York, and a new child is substituted and taught the same things which the one sent back formerly performed. He is not developed into an artist, because the play is not put on for the development of artists; the play is put on to produce a certain effect at a given moment, and to reproduce itself as long as the public demands it and as long as the box office receipts hold out. And, of course, no one is concerned with the education of the child. [page 4]

I saw the same play in New York twice this winter, and it was painful to see a little child clambering up a wall in exactly the same way which he had done the week I had seen him before, putting his little foot on exactly the same spot, and going through the same simulacrum of climbing a wall which he had done so many times that he could, of course, do it no other way, and was allowed to do it no other way.

Now, what do we like about children? Is it not, after all, their spontaneity? Is it not the determination of each little soul to express itself and be unlike anybody else which makes individuality? And when a child is too carefully taught to conform, or even when he is prematurely taught, we call him a prig, and we find him uninteresting; we say it is a great pity that this child had been given a pattern before we saw what was his real object, or his real contribution to life. So we say that, from the point of culture, the preserving for life the contribution and gift which each child might make, nothing is much worse than its premature exploitation on the stage.

I was asked this evening to say something about Count Tolstoy, and trying to say something about art here reminds me of a story which, perhaps better than any other story illustrates what we have a right to demand of art in this dreary life of ours.

Tolstoy has a story in which ten men are working in a field, and at the end of the season they divide up the produce of this field to each man according to the amount of work he has expended upon the field. But one day, one of these men wandering to the edge of the field and pulling a reed from out the swamp, finds that he can cut holes in this reed and make musical sounds, that he is, in fact, a musician. The other nine men are so pleased with the sounds of this pipe that they say to him: "We would much rather work harder, all of us, and supply you with food that you may be freed from the work and supply us with this sweet music." And so the man is freed from his labor, and he plays to the others as they are tilling the soil.

Tolstoy says that is a perfectly fair exchange; they give him food and he gives them that which lifts their minds from the harshness and roughness of their task, which gives them a sense of beauty in the world, and delights their hearts. [page 5]

And then he says that this artist, having the artistic temperament, and concluding that he is not being appreciated, puts his pipe under his arm and goes to the city. I think he has him go to Paris, and there he joins an orchestra, and they all play together, and they go down very low, and they go up very high, and they do very remarkable things in a musical way. And the audiences who come to listen are not people who labor, for the most part; they come because they think it is a cultivated thing to hear good music, or they want to write articles about it, or they want to go to an afternoon tea and tell somebody else that they have heard this music; for all sorts of reasons they come and listen. And because they listen from these queer reasons, the musicians begin to think only of their technique, they begin to try to do things that will dazzle the audience, that will bewilder them and mystify them.

And two things happen, Tolstoy says: The first thing that happens is that the people who are laboring are not having this music at all, because they cannot afford to come to hear this orchestra; they were working for a living in the shoe factories, the mills, the sweatshops, toiling through long hours without the pleasure which music might give them. And when they want that pleasure, they go to low music halls and get that which appeals to their sensuous natures, or at least that which does not uplift their minds. And then the fine people who come to listen to the orchestra, say to each other, "See, what the common people are; they like low down music; they don't like such fine music as we appreciate." And the orchestra, on the other hand, because it is not ministering to the people who labor, because it is not trying to perform the function of art, they, too, become very queer and difficult to understand, far away from that simple art which when fostered has always been a help; the art which Homer represented when he sang to the people of Greece and put into beautiful form the old stories of which they were all so proud; the sort of art which Cimabue represented when he came down from the mountainside and carried the picture of the Madonna through the streets of Florence, and all the people followed him and felt their religious life was being expressed by this gracious mother and child; the sort of art which Wagner expressed when he tried to unite the German Empire by going back into the old folk tales and saying, "These belong to all of us; we will synchronize them; we will bring them together; and through them we will express this new national life." [page 6]

And so Tolstoy says this thing has happened to art, that because real art can only come at the moment when it is trying to express the life of the people, after that moment is passed we imitate it, we serve it up over and over again. The people who labor, bereft of this art which they ought to have, get farther and farther away from solace, harder in their lives and duller in their purposes.

Many of us believe that the drama is a great art, that the power of the stage is so great and popular, that even the five-cent theater is almost becoming a national institution. I believe there are two and a half million people every twenty-four hours who go to a nickel show of some sort in the United States. They go, fathers and mothers and little children. What they see there more or less forms their moral purposes, or at least it expresses their longings for the heroic of life, their romantic cravings for all of those things which lie outside of humdrum. It is because we believe this art is so great and so powerful, even in its humblest manifestations at the nickel show, that we would preserve it for our national life, that we would keep away from it those who are too young to understand what it means, who are caught by the lack of restraint which art always exhibits, who fall in the snares which are always spread out for the young in such places.

And we would say, let us have as fast as we can a national drama in America; but let us have a drama presented by mature men and women, with their powers trained, with their outlook on life moralized; and then let us meet it from the side of the audience with a demand that it shall be sustained and worthy of our national life, and that it shall not be crowded and put before us prematurely, and that the young shall not be sacrificed that we may have a Roman holiday.