An Actor Speaks Up On a Pair of Old Traditions (1932)

An Actor Speaks Up On a Pair of Old Traditions

Mr. Howard Denies, for Instance, That the Show Must Always Go On and On

by Leslie Howard

The author is, of course, the star and co-producer of “The Animal Kingdom.”

It has always been a matter of curiosity, and frequently of annoyance, to me that so many of the strange and ancient rules, practical and abstract, which govern the profession of play-acting should have been able to survive into an otherwise fairly logical age.
There are so many of these that it would require a volume properly to analyze and discuss them, but I should like to pick out a couple that I conceive to be particularly glaring absurdities and take a look at them in the daylight.
Now, actors as a class are gentle and childlike creatures to whom the idea rarely occurs of asking why they accept rule laid down by their profession as being wise, beneficent and not to be questioned. Probably the most nonsensical of all these fetishes is summed up in the phrase “The show must go on.” This has been handed down from time immemorial, and all ranks of the theatre, managers, directors, box-office keepers, ushers, stage managers, actors, stagehands, and all others concerned in the running of the theatre, have this rule firmly implanted in their minds. Nothing must interfere with the performance.
If an actor has just heard that his mother, his wife, his child, any one dear to him, has suddenly expired, he must still step onto the stage as if nothing had happened and go through his lines in the proper way. No matter how ill he is, if he can manage to stand up non his two feet, still he must go on and perform his antics as if nothing were wrong. No matter what catastrophe is impending, or has occurred, the actor, like an express train, must be there on the dot.

You will notice that it is always the actor. No one else in the theatre comes under quite the same stringency. “The show must go on.” But, so far as I know, it has never occurred to any one to ask why. It is doubtful if an answer to this question would ever be given at all, but if it were, and given truthfully, it would be “so that the manager shall not lose any money.” Of course, it would also be “so that the actor shall not lose a night’s pay,” since another theatrical rule is, “No play, no pay.”
Of course, in the event of a minor character falling out, the play would continue because there are understudies. But in the case of star parts no understudies are ever provided, so that these unfortunate individuals, whatever the state of their minds or bodies, always appear on schedule unless they are actually dead or drunk.
I myself ran up against this fetish somewhat painfully in Chicago about a year ago. It was the opening performance of “Berkeley Square” in that city. It was a cold and dreary Winter in Chicago. I had for some weeks been suffering from every form of cold, influenza, grip and throat trouble. The peak of all this came on arrival in Chicago with a splendid attack of laryngitis. It became increasingly difficult to speak at all, and as the opening performance drew near I spent hours with throat specialists in an attempt to recover my falling vocal powers.
I pointed out my troubles to the company manager and also to the manager of the theatre. They were both intensely sympathetic, but, of course, made not the slightest suggestion that the opening should be postponed. In fact, in fairness to them, they did not even think of such a thing. They knew, and they expected me to know, that “the show must go on.” I thought to myself, “Of course you know it, and I know it, but does my throat know it?”
However, knowing that the show must go on, the curtain automatically rose. It was a very unfortunate occasion. My voice, which had been, during the first act, inaudible beyond the third or fourth row, gave out entirely during the second act, and I am sure was not even audible to the actors on the stage. When the curtain descended on the first scene of the second act, I retreated to my dressing room for a few moments to be worked upon by a doctor and to confer with the company and theatre managers. I whispered that I did not think I could continue.
“But you must continue,” they said. “You cannot stop a show in the middle. We would have to give them their money back. It is unthinkable. Mr. Gilbert Miller, the producer of the play, is in London and he would think we were all crazy. He knows the show must go on. Go back on the stage, old boy. You’re all right.”
So I went back on the stage, but not to act. Raising my voice to its fullest whisper, I announced to the audience that we were all getting a rotten deal; they, because they were getting a performance which was incomprehensible because inaudible; I, because it was a mental and physical torture to continue, and everybody else concerned (including my absent partner, Mr. Miller), because the show, as a result of this inefficient performance, would unquestionably get bad notices and run a week. Would they kindly rise, go to the box office and demand their money back in no uncertain voices?
The audience, who, of course, were not under the spell of any theatrical fetishes, thought this a quite sensible proceeding, rose as a man and a lot of women, and went to the box office, where the house manager, with tears in his eyes, handed back all the money he had taken in an hour before. The play reopened for days later with considerable success, but the above-mentioned appalling breach of ethics was not forgotten and was put down to “temperament,” which is the theatrical explanation of the unexplainable.

It is going to be much more difficult for me to attack the second of these abstract actors’ fetishes because it is defensible on economic grounds, and as the theatre is still more a business than an art only a few iconoclasts will agree with me. I refer to the theory that just so long as sufficient of the public continue to support a successful play, enabling it to pay its way, just so long must the play continue and the actors continue to play in it. Even if this becomes a matter of years.
Of course, indignant voices will immediately say: “Since it is so hard to find a successful play, certainly we must continue to run it until every drop of life is squeezed from it.” Of course, it is understandable that a manager should desire this procedure, but for an actor to do so indicates that the thing has become a fetish without reason, except for dire financial necessity. Nothing can be so deadly, nothing can be so boring, nothing can be so stultifying as the constant repetition, beyond a certain point, of the same lines night after night and month after month. It is the negation of all that the actor’s art stands for in the way of spontaneity, freshness and vitality.
When I first went on the stage in England, way back in the early post-war period, I took part for a brief spell on tour in a well-known entertainment entitled “Charley’s Aunt.” It had been produced some twenty-five years before in London and since then had steadily toured the provinces. It regularly did its forty-week tour each year, visiting the majority of cities once every twelve months, the fidelity, or whatever you like to call it, of the English provinces being such that they seem to welcome the old favorites.
Now, in the company of “Charley’s Aunt” was one man who had played the same part without a break since the London production a quarter of a century before, another who had played his for eighteen years and a third for twelve years. None of these people during these periods had ever appeared in any other play, nor had they the slightest desire to do so. Their only hope was that “Charley’s Aunt” might continue into eternity. They were perfect examples of actors completely absorbed by the fetish that having got hold of a good thing, they must stick to it to the bitter end.
Much more important and unfortunate are the cases of first-class actor-managers like Fred Terry (brother of Ellen), Julia Nellson, and of Sir John Martin-Harvey, who for decades have toured the English provinces with the same plays because the public happened to be willing to go on seeing them time and again. It has meant, of course, the total obliteration of these people from the modern theatre.
The mere fact of being able to extract a dollar’s worth of profit is no excuse for continuing a deadly routine unless that dollar is urgently needed. Noel Coward, who does not need the dollar, does the ideal thing when he insists on three-month runs as an actor in a successful play. Three months in London and three months in New York.
Twelve weeks I regard as the ideal run for an intelligent actor, and twenty weeks is the absolute maximum beyond which can only lie lunacy and stagnation. Mr. Coward, incidentally has reduced his theatrical life to the ultimate of perfection. He is actor, writer, director and general man of the theatre, but he takes his work in small doses and _lives_ in between so that he does not suffer the horrors of routined art.
At the conclusion of the stipulated three-month run of “Private Lives” in New York a terrific objection was raised by every one concerned to Mr. Coward’s insistence on his retirement from the cast while the play was selling out, and every argument, threat and plaint was used to induce him not to break this most sacred of all theatrical fetishes. They were unavailing. Placing his own private valuation upon his time and liberty, Mr. Coward, standing or no standing room, went his ways.
I hereby ally myself on the side of Mr. Coward and wish to place it on record that I regard the above proceeding not as pigheadedness or vanity but as an example of simple heroism, determination and true sense of values which gives one a lot of satisfaction. This is undoubtedly the actor’s ideal to which, however, few can aspire.

One of the most famous of these few is John Barrymore, who in his later days on the stage had a very proper horror of the interminable runs which come with success. His classic termination of the run of “Hamlet” at the hundredth performance, when it could easily have continued for a few hundred more, is still remembered as a piece of arbitrariness and lack of consideration for manager and fellow-workers only since equaled by Mr. Coward.
Of course, it was none of these things, because without Barrymore there would have been no hundred performances, no “Hamlet” at all, and his fellow-workers would have had to do something else; and if the manager had not made money at the conclusion of one hundred performances of enormous business, there must have been something wrong with his managerial economics, and he deserved no better; and of course no ordinary human being could continue to play “Hamlet” indefinitely, eight performances a week, on and on and on, and still remain sane.
It is quite clear to my mind that the main reason for the desertion to the movies of Mr. Barrymore lies in the simple fact of escape from this kind of bondage. The few brief weeks it takes to make a moving picture can be borne, however nauseating, because it can be followed by a period of liberty, depending for its duration on one’s bank account. It seems too bad that success in the theatre may be attended by the fear that the apparently inexhaustible public will never tire of seeing the specific performance it desire and that the actor must inevitably be attacked by that particular kind of neurosis which comes of having to do the same thing in the same place at the same hour, ad infinitum, unless it is remembered that it is only a fetish, as has been demonstrated, which can be cured.

(The New York Times, April 17, 1932)