Thespis — the Jade (1937)

Thespis — the Jade

by Leslie Howard

There is a small corner of the big world; a corner that by dint of dazzling illumination, vast braying noise, and millions of big meaningless printed words, has claimed and received a far greater share of the attention of mankind than its relative importance warrants. You will never guess it, but I refer to the entertainment business.
Now because of this phenomenon all those prominently connected with the entertainment world are accordingly elevated to positions in the public eye totally out of proportion to the worth of their services to their fellow-men. Particularly the performers. More particularly still the motion picture performers. I am aware that all this is platitudinous, but it seems to me necessary to insist on it in order to explain why I am writing this article at all.
When Mr. Ford or Mr. Morgan makes an announcement which may have a profound effect upon the automobile or banking business, he often receives but scanty notices in the press, and at that nobody reads them. But let Miss Crawford get married or Mr. Gable get divorced, then we shall see the front page headlines at their frothiest.
And so even I, performer and entertainment racketeer, have got myself into the news by an alleged statement that I was about to quit acting. You will notice something about this. It is the old journalistic story of the dog and the man. If the dog bit the man it’s no news. If the man bit the dog, that’s news. If the actor signed a long contract and said Mr. Goldwyn was a great producer and he was proud to work for him, what of it? If he threw up his hands and said simply, “I quit”–we can use that!
Last year I did it by being reported as saying that all English actors should leave Hollywood and work for the English picture business. This brought heavy retorts from the Anglophobes and rebukes even from the Anglophiles. It was an incorrect report, of course. Actually, I observed that all actors should go to England, including the Americans–in fact especially the Americans–since it was to the interest of actors in general to help build up another market for their talents.
But this observation was deliberately misquoted, because it makes a much better insult to Hollywood (even to America) to confine the proposed exodus to the snooty English actors. And an insult to Hollywood is news.
If you were to say, “Hollywood is divine. I adore it, and the climate, and the people, and my contract with T.N.T. Pictures”–well, if, for any reason, you said this, nobody would print it. It’s no news. But if you said, however affably, “Hollywood is a hell-hole,” you’d be guaranteed headlines from coast to coast. To insult Hollywood is still news.
I believe this state of affairs to be imperceptibly changing. To return to our man and dog. The reason that the man biting the dog is news is that in the majority of cases it is the dog who bites the man. But if, for any curious social reason, this state of affairs was reversed, then “dog bites man” would get the big print. And, I do believe, this is what is slowly happening in Hollywood. The time is approaching when our startled eyes will read the headline, “Actor raves about Culver City.”

Now whether this report about quitting attracted attention because it was considered in some vague way an insult to Hollywood, or some particular film company, or to the acting profession in general, or whether it was seized on with a sigh of relief like a report of the end of an epidemic, I know not. I am gratified, whatever the motives, to know I caused enough interest to prompt a request that I write an article about it. In response to the query, “Is it true you are retiring from acting?” I could reply equivocally, “I wish I could afford to,” or I could deny the whole rumor.
But, while this is, as usual, an incorrect, because incomplete, report, I know there is no smoke without fire. And so here I am trying to explain some of my slightly muddled mental processes concerning acting.
First of all let me admit that I am one of those unfortunate persons to whom any kind of public appearance is an embarrassment, for whom to perform before their fellow-men is a misery. I always sympathize with those wretched children who are made to exhibit their talents at parties. I myself never suffered thus as a child for the simple reason that I was utterly devoid of gifts of ny sort, but from the moment when, offered accidentally and accepted economically, I got my first job on the stage and sheepishly daubed my face with grease-paint, I had an inner conviction that this was the most embarrassing occupation in the world.
This belief, far from being modified by experience, I find to be only intensified with the years. I can conceive all women at all ages wanting to act, and I can conceive certain men of an adolescent age wanting to act, but the idea of middle-aged or elderly men getting any satisfaction out of painting their faces, putting on costumes and wigs, and giving vent to their emotions in public is something I cannot understand.

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The truth is that to enjoy acting one must be an exhibitionist at heart, one must revel in those exposures of emotions which would be agonizing to a shy or reserved person. All great actors have been and are exhibitionists. It is easy and pleasurable for them to shout, to weep, to tear their hair, to laugh, to make love. They enjoy it and they make their audiences enjoy it. They are the ideal actors.
As a boy the possibility of being an actor never occurred to me. Nor could it have occurred to anybody who knew the shy and inarticulate youth that I was. I wanted to write. I felt I could express myself on paper; alone in room I felt articulate and creative. But I was also lazy, a thing a writer never dare be. Application is, I am convinced, the first rule for authors.
Then, mysteriously, a part in a play offered itself, at a time when to earn a living was a prime motive of existence. And then another part in another play. And gradually the miracle took place. The metamorphosis of a nervous, inhibited, agoraphobic individual, who had other ambitions altogether, into a quite successful actor.
I can only attribute it to a growing, modern taste, particularly in America, for what is called mental acting. And this, of course, isn’t acting at all; acting is, essentially, fifty-fifty physical and emotional and has very little to do with the brain.
So much for temperamental suitability. To be more expansive I must say a word about the actual routine of an actor’s life. First of all the theatre. First, because this is the only true actor’s medium, the only place in which the proper art of acting can be practiced and performed, the only one of the various outlets open to the modern player wherein he can have due control over his craft, a necessity to which the humblest of artists must lay claim before he can be remotely worthy of the name. It will never be otherwise. This seems so obvious a truism that it is surprising how many people will unthinkingly deny to the ancient theatre this unshakable preeminence. They forget that the audience plays a vital part in a dramatic entertainment, it makes itself felt and heard, its receptivity is the complement to the actor’s effusion and the two combine to form the true theatre.
Any entertainment which removes the actor from direct contact with his audience is surely like producing babies in test tubes–doubtless an efficient and hygienic process, but one which must be highly unsatisfying to the parents. I refuse to believe that any performer who is neither a romantic young lady nor a vain half-wit can derive any pleasure from performing to himself, or to a microphone, or to a camera.
The detractors of the theatre further forget that a player who is trying to create a characterization in an intelligent drama must be left to do it alone with his fellow players. He cannot be cluttered up with producers, directors, scene designers, lighting experts, and technicians of every sort and description. All these very necessary people belong properly to the period of preparation.
They forget also that a dramatic portrayal demands continuity of thought and action. It must be begun at the beginning and continued to the end without interruption. It cannot be given in scrappy bits jumping insanely here and there in the story over a period of weeks and then fitted together, like a jigsaw puzzle, by a stranger in a little room after the actor has forgotten all about it.
But enough of this. I must have convinced you by now of the superiority of the legitimate theatre as an actor’s medium. If I haven’t, you’re impossible, or else you’re a confirmed movie actor. So, having perched the old theatre on a solid pedestal, I will proceed to make faces at it by describing the deadly condition of the actor’s routine in the modern commercial theatre.
A manager buy a play. Let us say it is a pretty good play by a well known dramatist. The cast is engaged. The conditions, whether for stars of bit players, are much the same, except for a slight difference in salaries. (Well, the bit player has less taken from him by the government.)
The play is sympathetically produced and directed. Rehearsals start in the city in which the production will finally appear. The theatre is dirty and uncomfortable and the whether appallingly hot–if it is midsummer, which it usually is. But the actors do not mind. They are enthusiastic about their roles and about the piece in general.
After four weeks of hard work culminating in the agony of dress rehearsals the company departs for their out-of-town tryout. A variety of provincial cities are visited where the actors live in overcrowded stuffy hotels and get indigestion eating the curious food in these hostelries. They do not mind; they are still enthusiastic, developing their roles before actual audiences, though backstage conditions here, as elsewhere, are dirty and unattractive.

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Some weeks later the play comes to the big city for its great opening. There is much excitement. And it is a hit. The manager is enchanted and goes to Europe to rest from his hard labors. The playwright is beaming. He sells the movie rights and goes to Florida to write another play. The actors look forward with varied feelings to creating the same role eight times a week for the next year of possibly two, with another year on the road to follow. At this prospect some are delighted and some depressed.
Those who are delighted belong in one of two categories: (a) They love their art but badly need a regular income, and (b) they loathe, detest, and are bored with their art, but badly need a regular income. The first are to be pitied, the second despised; and both should realize that a regular income is more easily obtained in a good business office, the theatre being precarious and irregular.
Those who are depressed at the vista of an interminable run–and I am head man among these–are so because they know how hideously stultifying endless months of repetition of a performance can become, how utterly destructive this is of all the spontaneity, freshness, and creative urge that make acting worthwhile to player and spectator.
They know that an actor, if he is working at his job, has within, say, thirty performances, brought all he is capable of to the building and polishing of a characterization, and once this peak has been reached the rest of the journey must be downhill. At least it must be so mentally, even if, physically, the thing continues like an automaton, six nights and two matinees weekly, monthly, ad infinitum.
Imagine a singer singing a ballad, a violinist playing a concerto five hundred times in succession with no other pieces in between!
My second engagement on the stage was in an ancient farce, Charley’s Aunt, which had been touring the provinces regularly for over twenty years. One member of this company had played the same part for nine years, another for fourteen years! They were horrors, poor fellows; they were terrifying. They seemed to me to be not quite human any more. They existed in dismal rooms from one dismal town to the next, and lived only for beer, roast beef, and that ghastly rigmarole they went through at every performance.
In addition to the mental confinement resulting from the long-run system, there is an equally oppressive physical imprisonment. Once an actor, particularly an important one, has embarked on the run of a hit play, practically nothing short of death can release him until the bitter end. There he is, in winter and summer, in sickness and health, eight times a week at the same stand as long as the public will take it.
In any other business the workers can get away from their labors for a few days, even a few weeks if their health or state of mind demands it. Not so the actor, especially the star actor. He is expected to drag himself through a performance in defiance of his doctor’s orders, possibly imperiling his life and his family’s security–and for what? For an insane catch phrase, “The show must go on,” a manifest hypocrisy concerning which few people ever bother to inquire “Why?”
The alternative to a hit being a flop, it will be asked what can be done about it. And the answer is, nothing, without changing the whole system to the continental or repertory idea. As the experts tell us that this is impossible in the commercial theatre, I suppose that is an end to the matter. And so most actors, all managers, and practically all playwrights continue to pray for a show that will run forever. Yet I should like to hint to the dramatists of this age that the main reason none of their successful plays becomes immortal is because they are bled to death in their original runs and thrown into the ash-can, deader than dead dogs.

I have a fear that the foregoing may lend color to the theory, sometimes advanced, that acting in the movies is not nearly so monotonous as acting in the theatre. Let me say at once that, for me, the movie actor’s life is a nightmare of boredom. The one feature of this remunerative occupation which has preserved my sanity is the fact that most pictures are finished within a couple of months, and one is then released for a spell before the strain becomes too severe.
Here is a typical working day for an average movie actor. He rises at six-thirty or seven a.m. He dresses and breakfasts in a hurry, and dashes to the studio, reaching there between eight and eight-thirty. He then makes up and dresses while the assistant director and his emissaries are knocking on his door urging him to hurry. He rushes to the set. The moment he is there nobody wants him any more. He sits and waits.
Electricians, carpenters, painters, cameramen, property men fall over him as they go about their duties. It is too noisy to read. But if he leaves the set he will be dragged back instantly. He waits in the confusion. He has no idea what is going on. He tries to study the scene for the day. Then he is informed that this scene will not be shot. He studies the substituted scene. It seems simple. Each of the two characters concerned has three lines apiece to say. The stage is finally set, but they have to wait for the leading lady, who did not expect to work that day.
By eleven o’clock she arrives looking radiant, accompanied by a retinue of make-up artists, hairdressers, costumers, and personal maids. There is an interlude during which the leading lady’s appearance is discussed by the cameramen, the director, and the retinue. Then the lights are put out and the two rehearse the scene. They rehearse it for a long time. The director is meticulous, the leading lady young, ambitious, and inexperienced. They repeat their lines apiece many, many times.
All the technical workers, who have been so busy, now sit and wait. After the six lines have been rehearsed fifteen or twenty times, and the actor is on the point of screaming, the director mercifully announces he will shoot the scene. But now the cameraman says he must see the actors under the lights.
So they pose for him till both are hot and tired and dislike each other heartily, while lamps are juggled around them endlessly. Then they run through the scene again so the cameraman can see them in motion. This necessitates more changes and finally the cameraman says, “Okay.” “We’ll take it,” says the director. But now the sound man wants to hear it exactly as it will be spoken.
They do it again. The sound man now juggles his instruments around and finally says, “Okay.” “Let’s go,” says the director. But now the leading lady’s make-up has started to run, so she goes off to fix it. There is a pause. Lights go out. Everybody sits. The leading lady returns. The lights go on. The director says he would like another rehearsal, in case they have “gone cold on it.” The leading lady says it is very warm.
The lights go out. They rehearse the six lines–twice. The director says, “Let’s take it.” The lights go on. Then the assistant director says it’s one o’clock, and the men have to have their lunch. The lights go out. Everybody goes to lunch.
After lunch, following a few rehearsals, light tests, sound tests, and so forth, the scene is actually shot. It is shot eight or ten times, though only one or two will be “printed.” But our wretched actor has given his all, eight or ten times. Do not imagine that this ends the matter. This is only the long shot.
They are now pulling everything to pieces, and setting up for the medium shot. Our actor tries to read again. He dare not leave the set, though everybody knows he will not be needed for at least an hour, since there is a general pretense that they are “all ready to go.” So he sits there in the confusion, smoking cigarettes or eating ice cream.

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Finally they get the medium shot. This is also done a great many times. Then another interlude. Then the whole thing is gone through again and again in a “two-shot,” locally known as “two big, gorgeous heads.” And finally they reach the close-ups, in which one player is photographed at a time, the other giving the response from the darkness behind the camera. By this time the few words, having been given at least fifty or sixty times during the day, have become gibberish, and the actors’ faces weary and meaningless masks.
Our actor staggers to his dressing room at sever or eight in the evening, removes his war-paint, dons his civilian clothes and goes home to his wife, speechless with fatigue. He eats some food and falls into bed, to be ready for his six-thirty call in the morning, more exhausted from his three immortal lines than if he had played Hamlet in the afternoon and Macbeth at night. And this is the daily routine until the picture is finished.
I say this is a dreary life, tiring because it is unexciting, and dull because it is unexciting, and dull because it is uninspiring. If I am alone in this opinion then I must be unique in my idea of an interesting occupation. The screen is a fascinating story-telling medium, but it is the director who tells the story, not the actor.
Well, if I don’t like acting, why don’t I quit and make room for people who do love their art? Ah, but can I? Few can afford to retire nowadays. And, though I will never be convinced, I may be no good at anything else.
Even so, now, when my children have reached an age from which they can view me dispassionately, their critical faculties alive and individual, I am more than ever confirmed in my early suspicions concerning my unsuitability to my adopted profession. Perhaps it will be understood why I am looking for an escape from grease-paint, and for some occupation which will be sufficiently absorbing and at the same time sufficiently remunerative, so that I may continue to be kept in the style to which, heaven be praised, I have become accustomed.

(Stage, July 1937)