Sunday, February 26, 2017

Newspaper Reporting and Modern Theater

From Ben Hecht's Gaily, Gaily:

I had made up the name Miss Van Arsdale, thinking it might appeal to Mr. Hutchens. It did. I made up also the information that Miss Van Arsdale was a graduate of an eastern university and niece of the fine lady novelist Edith Wharton, in Whose footsteps she was hoping to follow. 

Clara became the Journal’s first girl reporter at twelve dollars a week. This was the established salary for the launching of journalists. A placard over the water cooler Offered the printed information-ANY REPORTER WHO IS WORTH MORE THAN $35 A WEEK DOES NOT BELONG ON MY NEWSPAPER. JOHN C. EASTMAN, PUBLISHER. 

Clara was given a desk in the small office at the limbo end of the large Local Room. 

“Keep the door closed,” Mr. Hutchens cautioned her, “and you will not be bothered by the verbal habits of my staff. Journalism is a high calling, but I’m afraid it has a low vocabulary.” 

Clara’s Office belonged to Doc Knapp, our editorial writer. He was a lanky, red-whiskered sage imported from the Rocky Mountain News in Colorado to handle the Greco-Bulgarian war and other distant confusions. He wrote rhapsodically about the Greeks and their immemorial love for freedom, and had only snarls for the Bulgarians. The Journal bloomed with large advertisements of cigarettes and wines of Greek manufacture. Nevertheless, I held, with the rest of the staff, that Doc Knapp was out of place on a newspaper. Who the hell wanted to read about Greeks, Bulgarians, Englishmen, and Russians, when they could read about Chicagoans! 

“You don’t have to worry about ever seeing Doc Knapp,” I assured Clara, “because he never comes to his desk until after supper. He can’t think unless it‘s quiet, he told me. But if you should meet him just act as if you were talking to a minister. Editorial writers are almost the same as ministers of the Gospel in their general outlook.” 


In his youth, Carl Sandburg, his smokey eyes, oracle voice, herring catcher’s cap still unknown beyond our Local Room, wrote, “Why does a hearse horse snicker, carrying a lawyer’s bones?” 

How young Sandburg, unworldly as a prairie parson, came by this cynicism is a bafflement. Except that poets often know everything. The West Wind keeps them informed. 

Unlike Carl’s, my cynicism about lawyers was not mystically acquired. During my teens, hardly a week passed without my listening to them bombinate in courtrooms, and pull “innocent” verdicts like rabbits out of a hat. I watched dozens of clients, guilty as Gille de Rais and Lady Macbeth, walk out of these courtrooms to freedom. But they did not always walk out. There were some crimes too bloody to be rinsed away by rhetoric or befogged by cross-examination; or erased by judge and jury bribing. 

Among these noneradicable crimes was. . . the moral reformer who tilted at Sodom and Gomorrah by exploding a bomb in a movie palace playing Gloria Swanson in The Humming Bird -four housewives killed. Down went the gallows drop for these and similarly unpopular citizens. 

There was also State’s Attorney Maclay Hoyne and his stable of raring prosecutors to keep the hangman busy. Chief of these prosecuting attorneys was “Ropes” O’Brien, black-haired, ruddy-faced friend of the noose. On the day he made his death plea to the jury, he always wore a bright red tie. ‘ Most of the losers who stood briefly on the gallows had been landed there by “Ropes” O’Brien.  

My story is about a lawyer I knew, alas, in my youth and in whose preposterous mishaps I became entangled. But before I begin the tale, I am lured by its background-yesterday’s legal profession. It is as changed as our Fourth of July. The Artful Dodgers and Thunderbolt Hurlers, whose activities I once reported, are as extinct today as the fire engine horses that used to fill the street with banging hoofs and wild snorts. No modern judge would tolerate the defense and prosecution counsel shenanigans which were then in high standing. I admired them much and I admire them still. They were part of a world that specialized in individual clatter before the century’s war sirens silenced such lesser noises. 

Scarce on the scene were the limousine lawyers of today. The income tax had not yet invented the mathematical conman barristers with their Taj Mahal suites, or their sultanic colleagues, the contract jugglers. There were versions of such silk-batted ornaments of the Bar around, but I ran into few of them. They were then, as now, the fronts for respectability; and respectability was never a 'good news source. To boot, it was a dangerous news source. It could strike back, often at the advertising department, which was the glass jaw of any otherwise sturdy newspaper. I knew chiefly the rakish fraternity of mouthpieces who battled for the exoneration of the common man in distress; for addled porch climbers, wife heaters, door-mat thieves, duelists over pinochle tables; for butter-fingered safe-blowers and shoplifters, palsied pickpockets, hysterical paramours whose pearl-handled .22s seemed always to score a bull’s eve. 


Clarence Darrow defended me once in a Federal court where I stood charged with writing “a lewd, obscene and lascivious” book, Fanrazius Mallare. Obscene, forsooth! It could run today as a serial in a family magazine without fluttering a soul. 

I was paying Darrow not a penny for his services. Nevertheless, he insisted that I change my “No Plea” to a plea of “Not Guilty.” . ’ 

“We’ll battle this thing out,” said Darrow. “Art “versus the malignant Puritanism of our country.” 

I refused. A “Not Guilty” plea involved, automatically, a jury trial. I had seen ‘too many federal juries ”of farmers and small-town vigilantes. They, were not ones to take to their bosoms the cause of art. Darrow would battle well, but I had no time to spare for martyrdom; and 'no interest in causes. 

I wish I could have kept intact. this youthful sanity. It would have kept my nose (and pencil) out of the cause of Jewry. But I do not wish it too deeply. The sanity of youth is good for youth, but other sanities are needed to keep one feeling young-in the calendar’s teeth. Truth-telling, and dodging the brickbats it attracts, will keep the spirit supple. 
My favorite memory of Darrow is not in a courtroom, but in a theater. On Sunday afternoons, Darrow debated in the Garrick Theater with Dr. Foster, professor of theology at the University of Chicago. The moot subject was, “Is there a God?” Admission, a dollar a head. Professor Foster took the affirmative. “I quote you one of your own most brilliant agnostics, Anatole France, who states, ‘Atheism is the deepest infirmity of the human mind.’ 

Darrow answered, “I quote you the history of mankind, a history of increasing disasters and injustices. And I say that the only God who can be accused of presiding over the human race is its own stupidity.” . ‘ 

Professor Foster died. The funeral services were held in the Garrick Theater, no admission fee. Darrow spoke an eulogy from its stage. With tears running down his cheeks, Darrow stuck to his anti~God guns. “My good friend, Dr. Foster, has now found out how sadly in error he was. He has found but there is no God. ’But he will never be able to profit by this wisdom, for he lies in the nothingness of death. Would that it were otherwise....tears, wavered the Darrow voice “would that angels were singing and strumming golden harps. to welcome my friend, 'who was a sweet and honorable man. But there is no angel music for him, only silence and the dirt of a grave over him. Dr. Foster and God are now equally non-existent.


I buried the story as soon as it was done, in the silence where we usually store our defeats and shames. The disinterment of such maters is a difficult business. Nietzsche wrote it in full in a sentence- Memory says yes, pride says no- and pride is a liar that usually wins. Memory has seemingly divorced itself from me, and retired to some lonely attic, without a stairway leading to it. It is odd that so common an experience as memory should be almost as mysterious an experience as death. But not too odd; they are in a way, twins. We died, says memory; we will die, say§ death. They are misty matters, both of them. Looking back as I have been doing since page one, I remember things mist ily. There are sometimes brightly lighted little areas, like well kept playgrounds. But more often, events stripped of words signal in a denuded landscape, “Here we are, the proofs of your existence. Come have a look at us again.”  

I stare at these ghosts of life and feel a distress. The past seems without features or phrases.‘ Nor am I quite certain of the incidents themselves.  On such occasions, in which I am no more than a rumor in my own mind, a person almost as mythological as Ishtab of the Mayans, I have ruses for bagging these specters. A Hindu pundit, Acharyea, once instructed me, but I was already somewhat of an adept. I empty my mind of all conjecture and quest and stare at a single item. that time has not entirely erased. 

In this case, Dr. Stekel’s Vandyke is such an item, thanks to Mr. Mahoney’s training, “A beard always belongs in the lead” Slowly, it has taken me several days of beard watching, the Stekel Vandyke turns into the facade of the Chicago Beach Hotel. The white, turreted facade turns into a string of sentences that have nothing to do with the memories I am after. But I let them mumble away. Faces, also alien to the story I seek, appear and chatter pointlessly. Bits of scenery light up. And finally, instead of silence and anonymity, there is a hullabaloo. Yesterday’s graves open and out they come-pavements, windows, rooftops, floor lamps, portieres, couches; saloon confabulations; snow, rain, and screeching “L” trains; fires consuming the Stock Yards, criminals with cracked heads finally answering police questions correctly; and my first run of cronies, long dead and buried; but bright-eyed again and full of merry derision (usually of me). I recognize the background sounds and sights of my story. 

And on modern theater:

The delicious plot created by your finest brain cells turns suddenly into a scaly monster capable of chasing millions of people out of the theater. 

But you continue--arguing, struggling, passing out with exhaustion in out-of-town hotel rooms; exalting or lying in the road run over by critics (and audiences). Outside of amour, no events have more pleasure or pain to offer; or more confusion. Nowhere else is fame so quickly won and lost, erupting overnight like a bonfire that can change as quickly into a match flicker. 

The theater I first met in 1910 to 1920 differed considerably from the theater of today (1962). There was much difference in plays and the way they were acted. Playwrights were not hot on the trail of sexual deficiencies, or libido perversities. Climaxes usually consisted of a lingering and uncomplicated clinch between two performers, definitely of the opposite sexes. 

Nor were playwrights concerned with denouncing the world or improving it, or even noticing it. Human mishaps, yes; but little beating of “down with tyranny and injustice” drums. . We had also a sensitive police department. It might turn Its back on safe-crackers and vice lords, but never on unseemly language spoken from the stage. Playwrights like Tennessee Williams, Albee, Pinter, Beckett, etc. would have been arrested on opening nights and their casts carted to the Harrison Street bull pen. 

No, the plays of my youth could never lead us astray, or soil our ears with wanton nouns and verbs. In fact, our stage in that time was the only place where decency reigned, honesty triumphed, and immorality died like a dog, of madness, bullet wounds or jury verdicts. Television carries on the fine dramatic traditions of my youth, although they seemed prettier then. They had nothing to do with the purchase of spot and stink removers. And no coy lassies appeared between acts to sell me a luxurious type of toilet paper. 

Our plays were also pleasantly intelligible. There were some by such deep ones as Maeterlinck and Andreyev that you had to puzzle out a bit, being full of symbols and symbolical characters. These were generally deemed an imposition by the audience, who had not come to do any puzzling. They usually dazed through such poetic offerings, determined to “let sleeping symbols lie.” 

The modern mode of secretive play writing had not yet been hatched. ,If you wanted to treat your mind to something it couldn't understand, you had to track down a book on metaphysics, and sit by yourself ingesting it. The incomprehensible had not yet put on greasepaint or false eyelashes. 

Of playwrights who were shaken into incoherence by their subjects, we had none. And of playwrights who expressed psychology as a pianist might music by sitting down boldly on the keyboard, there was an absence. This brings me to a look at the theater’s most important figure 'who is not playwright, actor, or even producer -the audience.

There was in my youth a fringe of incomprehensibility fans, whose souls hungered for befogged plots and unintelligible whoops from their actors. But in Chicago, they were a minority barely able to fill the two hundred seats of Maurice Brown’s Little Theater on the seventh floor of the Fine Arts Building. And there was only one such shrine in town. 

The picture has changed. I pause in my recollections to note it, for it is a fascinating matter and is bound to grow more fascinating. The missile age of drama has its roots in the past-not the theater past, but that of the arts. It is part of an audience renaissance begun by the Cézannes, Kandinskys, Picassos, Rimbauds, Stravinskys, Antheils, Ezra Pounds, and James Joyces of the 1900s. It changed the look and sound of the arts, but it changed more startlingly its audiences. , 

There was for several decades-1880 to 1920-a hellish uproar against the new ways of painters, poets, and musicians. They were blasted by the finest of critics as a riffraff of con men trying to foist worthless products on the world. And the public would have none of them. Cézanne, Van Gogh were happy to swap one of their presently priced half-million dollar canvases for a meal. 

Around 1920 the audience-change began. Philistines started turning into aesthetes by the train load. The desire to be peculiar and original was always a part of the artist’s ego. It began to become part of the audience’s. Why, isn’t too hard to guess; The galloping increase of industrialism and stateism left the individual with less and less identity. The bigger became the problems of the world, the littler grew the humans they involved. Erich Fromm has written well of this modern disease of depersonalization- the psychic castration of our voters. Blotted out by the roars and menaces of progress, thrust into anonymity by mob-glutted cities and stuck away in the filing-cabinet rash of skyscrapers, our citizens responded in a number of ways. They developed tics, ulcers, homosexual tendencies, melancholia fits. They jammed the waiting rooms of psychiatrists and took over a fourth of the nation’s hospital beds as mentally disordered. 

They also turned to the arts. They shopped for personality among the artists who had continued to flourish under the labels of con men and fakers. Our castaway citizens couldn’t join the artists and find personality in protest and Bohemian hideaways. But they could admire the incomprehensible paintings, applaud the headache-inducing symphonies, and even read the incoherent poetry erupting from the art world. Thus began the revolt of our more solvent conformists. They were faceless and voiceless in all other matters, including the prospect of their own extermination. They had to go along with what was popular, and become echoes of authority instead. of individuals of special identities. Except in the arts. Here they could assert themselves as admirers of anarchy and defiance, and no harm done to their social status. To the contrary, they became people of superiority. ‘The eccentric genius of what they admired rubbed off on them a bit. They achieved the special identity of “modernists.” It was an impressive promotion. 

This audience renaissance was slow in hitting the theater, for the theater is our most ancient bridgehead of lucidity. Whatever confusions possessed the other arts, the art of the theater remained basically that of a Western Union telegram -terse and informative. 

But the theater is no longer a holdout. Its audiences have also begun their promotion from play lovers to play decipherers, from “show me” theatergoers to practicing psychologists studying with furrowed brow what seems to be going on on the stage. 

These modernist audiences leave the theater more impressed with, themselves than with the playwright and his cast. They, the audiences, have a chance to show their mastery over the incomprehensible, to show how bright they are by finding meanings the writer hasn’t put in, and uncovering special significances usually opposite to those intended by the writer. But the most important gift these modern plays of absurdity and bewilderment have for their audiences is the fact that they elevate them to collaborators of a sort, send them out into the street abuzz with “creativeness” and individuality. ' 

The chief victory of modernism everywhere, including now in the theater, is the evolution of growing blocs of customers eager to hail themselves as superior souls by applauding anything beyond their grasp. I have no criticism of any modern artists. except this one-that they seem to create artistic audiences more than works of art. It is as if a few society Horse Shows in Madison Square Garden inspired a large part of our population to walk around in riding habits and silk hats. There is another point of view in me toward the disheveled plays of which I’ve been writing. It has to do with the plays themselves. They may have the effect on audiences we said, but they are obviously not written for such purpose. It has always been a past duty of the theater to report the civilization of its day. Our modern, way-out plays full of hatreds, rages, inarticulate contempts, and infantile absurdities are, very likely, offering a fine report of us. They reveal often more than our dramatic surfaces. I have detected in some of them the story of our discarded sanity as we sit in the shadow of salesmanship and statesmanship, wooing us to bankruptcy or global destruction. . 

I ask the reader to forget all I have written of the modern theater and its new mastermind of an audience, and go back with me to yesterday’s simpler footlights. Make believe occupied the stage. Actors and actresses were not bent on being as dull and inaudible as “people in real life.” The stage had‘no more to do with real life than had fortune- tellers. Actors were as robust as the tons of scenery trying vainly to smother them. Performers tossed their heads, dragged their toes, and spoke in voices that could quell riots. 

Reality? That was the producer’s department. In The Easiest Way, producer Belasco had a real player-piano on stage that twanged out “Bon Bon Bunny, My Chocolate Drop.” And Mr. Belasco saw to it nightly that the window ledges of his heroine’s bedroom were piled with real snow. How could one doubt then the reality of Miss Frances Starr, abandoned by the Western mining engineer whom she had chastely loved, calling for her maid to fetch her a red ball gown. In it her broken heart would fare forth that night to sin.

There were sometimes plays of deeper content-As a Man Thinks, Hindle Wakes, The Playboy of the Western World, The Fourth Estate. But however deep the probing of problems Was behind the footlights, the play remained diversion, not information. Plays could interpret an audience somewhat, but they had to entertain it first and foremost. ‘Plays were chiefly daydreams. Their actors and actresses, however talented, remained picture-book illustrations. 

The truth is that, in my youth, the stage was alien ground. It had fun and sometimes fascination for us. But entertainment had not yet seduced the land. We had not yet taken to gaping at shadows of life as if our secrets and destinies lay in them instead of ourselves. The arts, high and low, had a hard time holding our attention.
People had too nosey an interest in each other. There was an avidity for friendship and gossip, a hullaballoo of family relationship, pretended chastity, secret sinning, a passion for bragging, card playing, and boss baiting that made people their own show. their preferred drama was their own existence.
It was an era of self-discovery and self-love. We hated no other nation, envied none, and were ignorant of any history but our own. Our basic characteristic as audience in the theater or in our favorite armchair, was that our egos had not yet improved (or evaporated) into a mysterious concern for others. “Others” included far-off wars, revolutions, famines, and bedevilments of every sort, political or spiritual. We considered ourselves more important than any out-of-sight mass events. . 

When the spirit of good-doing moved our town we went in for Tag Days. Pretty girls appeared in the streets holding out cans for our American dimes and quarters-to help the, unfortunate residents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. 

I do not offer these attitudes as superior, only as part of the vanished time I chronicle. We were not only isolate, but night as insular as Samoans. Our U.S.A. consisted of our jobs, families, amours, baseball teams, card parties, drinking rallies, and bank accounts. Yet, there was hardly a house. hold that did not own an American flag; a flag, but no ideology. There was less ideology involved in being an American than in being a member of the Loyal Order of Moose. 

The arts were the first break-through in our Americanism; particularly the art of the theater, which is only half an art and half a get-rich-quick operation. Artistic Europe, which regarded Americans as cultural Pygmies, began to feel the lure of our first-rate coinage system. And the theater gold rush from the “other side” was on-Shaw, Galsworthy, Gorki, Ibsen, Synge, Brieux, Claudel, Pinero, Sutro, Hauptmann, Wedekind, Strindberg, Wilde, Chekhov, Andreyev, Maeterlinck, etc. , 

We Chicagoans gave ear to these superior playmakers, with minor reaction. The “intellectual” dramas seemed not much different to us than the unintellectual American product. There were still actors, canvas scenery, and footlights in front of us. The dialogue was more philosophical, but the plots were slower. Despite such high-brow discussions, the stage remained Punch and Judy entertainment for us. 

I speak not only of my young self, but of my brighter elders with whom I attended performances. One was Sherman Reilly Duffy, our sporting editor with a Phi Beta key dangling from a vest pocket. The Iroquois-faced Mr. Duffy could recite Horace in Latin and knew half of Homer by heart. A second was Joseph Medill Shehan, managing editor of the Chicago Evening Post, a lean man with’a soft but acidulous voice. Mr. Shehan was an authority on Locke, Lecky, Hume, Schopenhauer, and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. My third mentor (all three were unmarried) was Richard Henry Little, the Chicago Tribune’s foreign correspondent, drama critic. and utility humorist. Mr. Little was six feet five inches high, with a look of disbelief on his jester’s face. He had covered what he called “fracases” in the Philippines, China, and Africa; and was constantly in love with various theatrical stars who, as far as I know, never succumbed to his wooing. It ls true in the theater, if nowhere else, that important ladies shy from humorous men; and humorous ladies have an uphill climb to romance. 
It was with these cultured fellows I went to the theater, once or twice a week. My three guides always had passes and I was a fill-in guest whenever a lady friend stood one of them up; which seemed to be constantly. In addition to being men of wit, my three tutors were Rock of Gibraltar bachelors, regarded by good women as enemies of society, much as Communists are today. 

My mentors had no deeper response to the theater than mine. They were continually forgetting what the play was about. Actors confused them, as print did not. I shared their backwardness as audience. A book by Anatole France, At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, would keep me discussing the Abbé Coignard for months. Dostoevski’s The Idiot would set Myshkin to haunting me for the rest of my life. Not so, the Chekhov, Gorki, Shaw, Ibsen, Galsworthy, Andreyev characters who emoted behind the footlights, not even the Macbeths and Hamlets; or the first Eugene O’Neill hero to come to town (Richard Bennett in Beyond the Horizon). We admired, applauded, and forgot. 

There was one group of natives who responded quite otherwise-our drama critics-Ashton Stevens, Percy Hammond, Amy Leslie, O. L. Hall, Charles Collins, Frederick Donaghey. These were the Wittiest of our journalists, as drama critics and sports writers usually are, and they greeted the intellectual imports with erudite hosannas. I have, also, been a critic of plays and books, and known the fun of rising mentally to good work.


Election day emptied the Press Room. Even the cardplayers disappeared. All reporters, regardless of their wiliness, had to take to their legs to cover the town’s voting centers; not to see who got elected, but how many people were slugged, stabbed, and shot during the hours in which free men voted. 

There are few names in my memory of election days, and no political echoes. I had no interest in the snarling, bellowing candidates. They all seemed alike to me, men shamelessly hungry for soft jobs. Once elected, they would have hardly any work to do, and they would be in a position of acquiring dishonest fortunes. I had covered elections since I was seventeen, and listened to candidates lie and swindle their way into political offices in which they subsequently functioned as thieves and boisterous ignoramuses. 

I had grown a mustache to give me an older guise, but I was still too young to vote. I felt in no way deprived. What I saw at the voting polls left me permanently indifferent to the privilege of voting. Another factor was to keep me from expressing my will as a citizen. From youth on, I was never able to prefer one politician above another. 

I am aware that the political stakes have changed, that human survival is now the name of the game. But I see no alteration in politicians. The lust for unmerited distinction and good pay still steams in them. The thrill of having their confusions and misinformation hailed as the finest of wisdom still lures them to the stump. And politics is still the only profession in which a man can make a living solely by bragging. 

Nothing has changed except the stakes. Human hopes, tears, human sanity, and love are still without representation in the political temples. Since the start of history, government has played blindman’s buff with disaster. It is a fashion the is likely never to change. But all this is none of my business. I shall stick to my memories of the political scene, when the’stakes were smaller and the Halloween battles power more fun to watch. 

The voting centers we reporters covered were usually cigar stores, saloon back rooms, or commandeered Chinese laundries. There were as yet no voting machines. The so stepped gingerly into a curtained-off space, sat down rickety table, and, with heart in mouth, marked his vote on the ballot with a pencil. 

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