Set for Acts I and III of the New York Fulton Theatre production of 1924, not the Alcazar, San Francisco 1928 production.
Although the roles shifted as William Macauley’s name moved down the Dramatis Personae from major to minor, from leading young man to lesser character parts in his later years – as the minister, butler, quirky old doctor – the material itself remained remarkably consistent. Melodrama, if nothing else, is moral drama: family comes first, sons and daughters dutiful to parents, husbands faithful to obedient wives. Plot twists aside, transgressions need always to be punished, virtuous love rewarded and threats to the natural order firmly rebuffed by the final curtain. It is drama that is safe, that plays by the rules. From W.B. Patton’s “The Minister’s Son” in 1904 to Frank Craven’s “New Brooms” in 1924, the story’s the same: a son must learn that Father Knows Best.
“Well, you don’t understand. Things are different today than they were when you were a boy,” says the son Tom Bates to his father at the end of “New Brooms” and his father replies:
“Yes. I said that to my father, Tom; and if you have boys – which, please God, you will – they’ll say it to you. (A good pause.) I am not trying to talk now of the world and its manners, its inventions, its increased wealth and its decreased modesty. Those things are different. Kids today ride where I walked – they have a dollar where I had a penny – they have their clothes made where I had my dad’s things cut down. Things are different. I can remember when I was a boy and went to the theatre – (Pause – Look towards house) – the girls wore tights. My folks thought that was terrible. I didn’t. I’ve seen some of the pictures you have in your room, Tom. I think they are pretty raw. You don’t. Can you imagine what you will think of the pictures your boys will have? …”
Can you imagine indeed. Funny, isn’t it, how Change so often seems to be associated with Loss, of decency, of morality, of modesty, of clothes. Change means exposure, means being more explicit, more real. From boys playing the parts of girls to real girls on stage to real girls in tights. The search for verisimilitude leads to new ways to strip away illusion and depict the real. David Belasco went so far as to have an entire tenement room, walls, windows, doors, removed and installed on a Broadway stage in order to give his audience a more authentic and real experience.
But there are limits to how real and how raw and how new. Then as now there were censors and public vice crusaders and reformers. In the business called show, just how much you could show was a matter of opinion, sometimes a judge’s and jury’s. David Belasco’s “Lulu Belle” (1927), one of his most controversial productions, was one of a number of plays that tested those limits. “Lulu Belle” was the story of a Harlem prostitute who lures a man away from his wife and children only to leave him for a prizefighter, and then another man; when Lulu refuses to return to her first spurned lover, he strangles her. And as shocked as the critics were by the salacious tale, it was the actress Lenore Ulric’s seductive performance and revealing outfits that really offended. It isn’t just how much you show but what kind of story you tell. Show and Tell.
No wonder, then, that film back then seemed so dangerous. Film was all about showing the real world, with an unsavory, morally ambivalent quality that came along precisely for that, the result of being so real. Too real. And even worse than real, accessible. Cheap compared to live theater, and since the masses were by their very nature immoral, the last thing they needed was cheap and easy access to the real. The masses needed lessons and order and control and constraint. New brooms too, maybe, but not at the risk of upsetting the Way Things Should Be. And so the need for a speech from the father that continues for another thirty-six lines until young Tom, who’s managed to make a mess of the family’s broom manufacturing business, realizes he’s going to be forgiven in spite of it all because Family trumps Change and the young man declares, “Dad, you’re a peach!” and father and son embrace.
This is theater that instructs as it reassures. It’s the kind of theater William Macauley and his partner W.B. toured with at the turn of the last century, and the sort of “wholesome” material Henry Duffy sought to bring to the stage in the 20s and 30s until cheap cinema finally took over and the world was plunged into darkness and decadence.
They say pornography drives technological innovation, that a desire to see more flesh leads to photography to film to VHS to DVD to high definition to 3D. They also say Puritans and prudes make the best alcoholics: the greater the inhibitions, the greater the need to break those inhibitions down, I don’t know about that. Prohibition didn’t work but it certainly made for a strange and exciting time to be alive.
What’s interesting to me is how, in the midst of it all, you choose to live your life. Then and now. How daring and risky you want to be, or how safe you want to play it. The truth is, change happens, more is revealed, it’s how you react to that change that matters. How ambitious do you want to be when your own life doesn’t fit within the confines of the socially acceptable? How much are you willing to show and tell the world? What do you do when you find it hard or dangerous to play by the rules, and illegal or fatal if you don’t?
Sometimes you have no choice.
You become an actor.