31 MAY 1930, Page 13

The Theatre

Do We Want a National Theatre ?

Ours aged friend, the British National Theatre*, is visibly " in the air " again.

It has been up there, floating in a tantalizing manner, like the sage in Aristophanes, ever since any living dramatic critic can remember the so imperfect theatrical edifices on solid earth. It descends. It seems to be within reach. One can almost touch it. After reading Mr. Harley Granville- Barker's succinct and carefully documented treatise one sees it taking root, an impressive 1750,000 piece of architecture, over there on the south side of the river, " between the County Hall and the Surrey approach to the new Charing Cross Bridge," which also remains unrealized. One can picture the cars and taxis and pedestrians and tube travellers (aided by subways from Waterloo and Charing Cross) filing, in expectant procession, to the new home of rejuvenated drama. One. imagines that greatest of all first nights. The National Anthem sOunds. (Their Majesties will not fail to support this function.) All the usual first-nighters whO are not by that day dead will be there—some hopeful, others (the dramatic critics, of course) sceptical.

• .4 National Theatre. By Harley Granville-Barker, (Sidplck 'and Jackson. Ss.) Possibly a little late—because of the immense prepara• tions involved and because of the traffic delays in getting across bridges into a remote district not far from the site of some of the Elizabethan playhouses—the curtain goes up.

Upon what ? Undoubtedly upon Shakespeare. What National Theatre would dare to open without him ? Upon Shakespeare, badly acted as usual, badly cut, indifferently produced, partly unintelligible, and so made infinitely tire- some ? That is the question.

It is the question put by all those who hate discouraging the idea—the supremely educative ideal—of a National Theatre ; because, to attack it seems dangerously like blindness to a vision of great nobility ; could it but be realized ! I do not attack. But I cannot help doubting. A warning is not an assault.

And, for all these years past, . I have wondered at the hope (or illusion) which prompts enthusiasts to suppose that, in Mr. Philip Guedalla's words, "the solution of every, problem is to create a Ministry of it "—or a municipal edifice to house it. Have we many diseases, few cures, and doctors who confess failure ? " Municipalize Harley Street!" So Mr. Shaw, in regard to the medical, as to every other problem. Have we an afflicted, staggering drama ; always improving into convalescence, then slipping back into delirium ; always at loose ends and false beginnings ? Have we lost the art of great acting, as I ventured to suggest last week ? Give us a National Theatre ! ,Then dramatists and actors will pullulate like spring bulbs in new bloom. Why ? I am utterly unable to see.

Nor do I see any clearer if I look across the Channel and contemplate the National Theatres of play-loving Paris—the dismal Odeon, nearly defunct ; the Theatre Francais, long since ceased to be the inspiration of any modern drama, and now (according to Parisian critics) incapable even of keeping the classics alive by producing or performing them efficiently.

In Paris the younger critics are clamouring for M. Copeau to revive this dramatic mausoleum. M. Copeau (like Mr.

Granville-Barker) has done immense service to the stage— independently, in unfettered exercise of his native originality, alone. Similarly, M. Antoine, beginning in a gas-lit barn, invented or re-created a whole dramatic movement, the realistic movement of the Theatre Libre, not the Theatre Sabventionne ! M. Anionie, after almoSt superhuman achieve- ments, goes to the State-aided Odeon. He fails. Even he cannot make a National Theatre a success.

These are sad omens. They do not prove a case. They suggest doubts.. They suggest something else—an impression, a suspicion, that the direct approach (via a new Charing Cross Bridge) to the National Theatre is the wrong way.

This idea has swollen until it has become elephantine, or has caught elephantiasis, with the years. Writing abOut it in 1896, in the preface to his Theatrical World of that year, William Archer, that staunch friend of our draina, spoke very persuasively of an endowed theatre which is not necessarily the same thing as a- National Theatre started de novo. . He apparently came round to the later, the more ambitious, view so clearly explained to-day by Mr. Granville-Barker, who carefully warns us that a National Theatre cannot be begun in a small way." But it is in small ways—not too ambitiously —that many great things begin. And, remembering our debt to Mr. Granville-Barker, striving in consequence to see the thing as he sees it, swelling and swelling till it becomes, as in- this book, not one National Theatre only, but an amalgamated two—two houses, a big one and a little, on the same. site—one longs, to suggest to him that even with a reputedly sympathetic Government this scheme is not "practical politics." I cannot believe that we shall ever get this stupendous Theatre, here described with such pains- taking recital of every detail in ways and means. And if we don't get it—if it is brOught before Parliament and fails —we shall get nothing.

Would it not be wiser to ask for less ? To begin with the demand for an endowment or " grant in aid " for such dramatic enterprise as may have already justified itself by, its artistic appeal and by some measure of success, with the more discriminating section of playgoers ? How if the Vedrenne- Barker management, 'Years ago, had been able to stabilize itself, to perpetuate' itself, by some such subsidy ? How if, as Mr. Basil Dean has suggested, we contented ourselves

at first with a subsidized Drury Lane—a theatre already historically " national "—and worked on, without immense delays ? For it is certain that, even after the National Theatre is built, it will need three or four years to get it open, to train actors, to secure a staff and thus to prevent that dream or nightmare of a new theatre turning out to be an old bore. Mr. Granville-Barker, I gather, admits this. Why not a minor endowment first—instead of an entertainment tax, as now—and so the first step ? For the difficulties are tremendous in a nation that has broken its theatrical traditions.

Loyally, Mr. Granville-Barker gives some of them here, and recently they have been reviewed, with much sense, by Mr. Francis Birrell, as well as by many others who are emphatically not Philistines. But, whatever may happen to the great building now floating over the Surrey side, all friends of our drama must study Mr. Granville-Barker's plea in favour of it. For benevolent Ministers, his treatise provides, as in a Blue Book, a complete array of all the facts and figures they may require for the argument now said to be ready for debate at Westminster.