Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Relevance of The Syndicate

In the comments following yesterday's post "Taking the NEA Out of the Stimulus Package," I wrote about how the process of centralization was not simply a "natural progression," but rather developed from the efforts of the Theatrical Syndicate to buy up all the first class theatres in America and provide touring shows from New York. These efforts destroyed resident companies and forced theatre artists to relocate to New York in order to work. In a hilarious response, Isaac wrote: "Good point about the Syndicate, but I have to ask... did they really call themselves the syndicate? That's like Magneto calling his organization THE BROTHERHOOD OF EVIL MUTANTS i mean... how obvious can you be?" *LOL* Yes, Isaac, not only did they call themselves the Theatrical Syndicate, but one of their most prominent members was -- wait for it -- Marc Klaw. If this sounds like a comic book struggle between good and evil, the reality is just as exciting.

My point in bringing this up in relation to the discussion of the arts in the stimulus package (just to get the immediate issue out of the way) was to point out that the current centralized, big city orientation of the arts in America is a historical phenomenon that resulted from a titanic power struggle in the 1890s, and not simply a "natural" development that just sort of "made sense." It represents the Wal-Marting of the theatre, it was managed by rich and powerful people, and it left a lot of scars across the country, both within the theatre and within the audience. While it may seem as if this is old news that has nothing to do with us in 2009, I beg to differ. All we need to do is look at the resentments of Reps. Pence and Kingston to see echoes of the past, the scars of which they themselves wouldn't even be able to identify.

The point I was trying to make about the arts in the stimulus package is not that the NEA funding ought to be removed from the bill, but rather that as artists we need stop seeing opposition to the arts as the sign of narrow-minded cretinism and instead form our arguments with some sort of historical awareness and sociological knowledge and, yes, understanding of opposing viewpoints. We have to learn from our total bungling of the NEA flap of the 1990s, during which artists couldn't marshal much more than sputtered "How dare you question us! We are artistes!"and a few airy generalities in defense of the arts in American society. There is a direct connection between this epic fail and what I described in my post yesterday entitled "Thoughts on Style While Feeling Crummy." Arts education is so focued on teaching how-to subjects that undergraduates and graduates emerge with little knowledge of history or theory, or any understanding or even awareness of the Great Conversation that extends back to Plato and Aristotle, for crying out loud, over the role of the arts in society. Little or no knowledge of how exactly we got to our current situation. We just think it just sort of...happened...because, well, that's what made sense.

If you're like me, the generative myth I was taught about the development of the American Theatre is that it sprang, Athena-like, from the forehead of Eugene O'Neill in the 1920s. That before then, the American theatrical universe was void and their was darkness upon the face of the theatre. And that is a total and ridiculous lie. It is history written by the victor in which the influx of immigrants to New York City represents the flowering of the American theatre, and that is a partial explanation at best. In fact, their was a vibrant artistic tradition in America throughout the 19th century, one that mixed what came to be known as lowbrow and highbrow entertainment in the same evening's entertainment, and one that was owned and operated by artists not producers. There were resident theatre companies, opera companies, and symphony orchestras all across America. I have quoted Bill MiKibben's Deep Economy before, but I think it is worth quoting again: "in 1900, in the state of Iowa alone, which was then crowded with small farmers, there were also thirteen hundred local opera houses, all of them hosting concerts. "Thousands of tenors," writes Robert Frank [in Luxury Fever], "earned adequate, if modest, livings performing before live audiences."

All of this was ruined by the Syndicate. The story is dramatic, and thanks to Wayne S. Turney, Associate Professor of Theatre at DeSales University in Center Valley, PA you can read a description as written by the people who fought the battles: Daniel Frohman (whose brother, Charles, was a member of the Syndicate), Francis Wilson (who fought the Syndicate, and who eventually became the first President of Actors Equity), and Norman Hapgood (a journalist who wrote The Stage in America: 1897 - 1900 which was published in 1901). I encourage you to read the whole thing -- it is really fascinating, and an enormous debt of gratitude is owed to Dr. Turney. I will provide excerpts below that pertain to the discussion at hand.

Daniel Frohman:

One day in 1896 a notable group of theatrical magnates met by chance at a luncheon at the Holland House in New York. They included Charles Frohman, whose offices booked attractions for a chain of Western theaters extending to the coast; A. L. Erlanger and Marc Klaw, who, as Klaw and Erlanger, controlled attractions for practically the entire South; Nixon and Zimmerman, of Philadelphia, who were conducting a group of the leading theaters of that city, and Al Hayman, one of the owners of the Empire Theater.

These men naturally discussed the chaos in the theatrical business. They decided that its only economic hope was in a centralization of booking interests, and they acted immediately on this decision. Within a few weeks they had organized all the theaters they controlled or represented into one national chain, and the open time was placed on file in the offices of Klaw & Erlanger. It now became possible for the manager of a traveling company to book a consecutive tour at the least possible expense. In a word, booking suddenly became standardized.

This was the beginning of the famous Theatrical Syndicate which, in a brief time, dominated the theatrical business of the whole country."

As described by Norman Hapgood:

During the season of 1895-96 it became known that a combination was being formed to control many theatres, consisting of Nixon and Zimmerman of Philadelphia; Klaw and Erlanger, and Hayman and Frohman, both of New York. By February it was announced that thirty-seven first-class theatres were in the hands of the Syndicate. To each of the houses thirty weeks of "attractions" were to be guaranteed. The essence of the system, from that day to this, with constantly increasing scope and power, has been that the theatres take mainly such plays as the Syndicate desires, on the dates which it desires, and receive in return an unbroken succession of companies, with none of the old-time idle weeks. Another inducement to the owners of theatres was the promise of better terms from travelling managers; but the actual outcome of that idea is not so clear. Avoidance of conflicting plays, or of a series of plays too much alike, was also one of the proposed advantages, but this has turned out a difficult object to gain, especially with the necessity of changing all dates to suit big Syndicate successes; and many theatres have the ordinary padding, farce comedies, for weeks at a time.

Francis Wilson:

The drastic action of the Syndicate in compelling actor-managers to submit to its terms or go elsewhere, there being nowhere else to go, did not apply to the rank and file of actors, but only to those who headed or controlled their own companies, the so-called " stars." These " stars," whose talent had won great favor with the public, were the most important attractions in the country, but were outnumbered by the " starless " companies which had been organized, or had come under control of the men forming the newly composed " Syndicate." Managers of theaters in cities and towns outside of New York mostly resented this Syndicate as much as did the " stars," but were forced into affiliation with it by the threat of not being permitted to play the numerous Syndicate attractions, the formation of a powerful opposition, and the fear that the " stars " would ally themselves with the Syndicate. As it well knew, the Syndicate had the out-of-town manager on the hip; for, if forced to play only the Syndicate's comparatively inferior attractions, while it might keep his theater open for a longer period during the season, it would mean great loss of prestige with the public and still greater loss of profit. But, as was cunningly suggested by the Syndicate, if the out-of-town manager joined with it, there would be no theaters in which the " stars " could appear, and the out-of-town manager would soon have not only the Syndicate attractions, but also the" stars " as well. It was as plain as day. The out-of-town manager yielded. The actor-managers were unorganized, had no stomach for organization, and were, therefore, an easy and natural prey."


The situation was a serious one. To my mind, the managers had determined to wipe out of existence the control of any company by an actor, because such control was inimical to their plans. It was evident to me from the beginning that, with the Syndicate in control, the receipts of all companies must satisfy the greed and caprice of that organization, or the companies would be abandoned. They would have no theaters in which to play. It was a foregone conclusion that the kind of play produced would be that which drew the most money, irrespective of its quality or character. There would be but one thought as to that. The receipts were the thing. It was an easy step to the conclusion that the financial returns from the smaller cities and towns throughout the country would ultimately fail to satisfy. Y et when I uttered such a thought, I was declared to be an alarmist. I did not foresee the complete abandonment of the smaller cities and towns, as to dramatic amusement, which has come to pass, except for moving pictures.

Wilson goes on the describe why the actor-manager model is better for the theatre and the producer model that the Syndicate put into place, and that has been in place ever since:

Sure enough, with the coming of the equally commercial Shuberts, there was soon no actor-manager in America, even at the head of his own company, and no matter how large his name might appear . who was not directed and controlled by Syndicate managers. Furthermore, if these jointly opposed, there is not now an actor-manager great or small in America who could follow his profession. How did these managers, this Syndicate, obtain a footing in the theatrical profession which was once, not long since, in possession of the actor and the actor-manager ? How came they in a profession in which they are really unnecessary ? If ever there were such a thing as a fifth wheel to an enterprise, they are it. There are just three essentials to this whole beautiful matter of the drama, no more, . the author, the actor, and the audience. They are of equal importance and hold the same opinion of managers. All the rest can, and should, be hired. It is probably entirely due to the actor's lack of appreciation of his duty to himself and to his profession that managers as we now know them have come into existence. And there they are dominating the situation and quite convinced that they are the sun around which the entertainment, refreshment, and instruction of the world revolves, yet caring nothing for the ethical part of it.

Wilson describes the previous model

In the old days, the actor-manager maintained a "stock" company the year through, or nearly so, in various cities throughout the United States, as, in New York, the Mitchells, Burtons, and Wallacks, the Burtons and the Davenports in Philadelphia, the Conways in Brooklyn, the McVickers in Chicago, the Popes in St. Louis, the Fords and the Albaughs in Washington and Baltimore, etc. To these theaters came as traveling "stars" the Edwin Forrests, the Booths, the Charlotte Cushmans, the Mrs. D. P. Bowers, the Lucille Westerns, the Maggie Mitchells, the Joseph Jeffersons, the W. J. Florences, the Barney Williarnses, the Lottas, etc., who depended on the resident stock company for professional support in their tragedies and comedies.

Finally, as star after star (inclduing Joseph Jefferson, James O'Neill, and Richard Mansfield) caved in and signed with the Syndicate, Wilson (and Mrs. Fiske) were the only resisters. Both were being put out of business by the Syndicate's strong-arm tactices (Wilson published a cartoon portraying the Syndicate as an octopus):

Meanwhile, how was I to extricate myself from the dreadful position in which I found myself, how avoid expatriation ? Was I to sit down and calmly permit the money-changers in the Temple to walk all over me? The matter gave me many an anxious, many an indignant, thought. Then it occurred to me that there was such a thing as fighting the Devil with fire. It was only too evident that independence as to where and with whom one should play was lost to the American player, that henceforth he must appear only where he would be allowed! An extremely bitter, uncoated pill for any well man to swallow, yet there it was, to be taken or rejected as prescribed.

And he describes the end result, which continues to be the situation today:

The Syndicate went on unhindered for years, doing as it pleased, making things easier for itself and more difficult and intolerable for everybody else, actors, dramatists, and other managers outside its ranks. It decided when and where a play should appear, or whether it should appear at all, and even what monetary share it should have in the play. It decided what changes a play should undergo after acceptance, no matter to what well-meant but ignorant maltreatment it was subjected. It decided that a season's engagement should last but a few nights, and were brutally frank about it. It paid what it pleased, when it pleased, and where it pleased, and under conditions and agreements so one-sided, so far as the actor was concerned, as to be laughed out of court when, as occasionally happened, they reached there. Of course it produced and countenanced the type of play that " pulled the dough." With that, all thought, all ambition ended. It was a noble institution!

The words of famous artists and thinkers quoted in Hapgood's book:

William Dean Howells: --"Not merely one industry, but civilization, itself, is concerned, for the morals and education of the public are directly influenced by the stage. Every one who takes a pride in the art of his country must regret a monopoly of the theatre, for that means 'business' and not art."

Thomas Bailey Aldrich: --"The inevitable result of a Theatre Trust would be deterioration in the art of acting and discouragement of dramatic literature. Certainly that is not a consummation devoutly to be wished."

Augustin Daly: --"I do not believe that the best interests of dramatic art nor the highest aims of the theatre will be served if the spirit of competition is chilled, crippled, or destroyed; and the first aim of all such combinations or syndicates must be to absorb opposition and to kill off rivals or rivalry."

Joseph Jefferson: --"When the Trust was formed, I gave my opinion as against it, considering it inimical to the theatrical profession. I think so still."

Richard Mansfield: --"Art must be free. I consider the existence of the Trust or Syndicate a standing menace to art. Its existence is, in my opinion, an outrage and unbearable."

Mrs. Fiske: --"The incompetent men who have seized upon the affairs of the stage in this country have all but killed art, worthy ambition, and decency."

Francis Wilson: --"Dramatic art, in America, is in great danger. A number of speculators have it by the throat, and are gradually but surely squeezing it to death."

James A. Herne: --"The underlying principle of a Theatrical Trust is to subjugate the playwright and the actor. Its effect will be to degrade the art of acting, to lower the standard of the drama, and to nullify the influences of the theatre."

Henry Irving once gave his views in the London Chronicle on this subject: "When I was in America, lately, a deputation of actors assured me that the Syndicate System is the curse of the American stage. Actor-managers, at all events, have made sacrifices for their calling, and protected its interests, and it will be an evil day for those interests when they are left to the mercy of speculation."



Over the past how-many-years, I have been arguing about decentralization, and commenter after commenter have used the "that's just the way it's always been and ever shall be" trope. The lack of historical awareness makes artists unaware that they have a choice, the status quo wasn't inevitable, it does not have to continue, and it is not natural. In the 1890s, there was a struggle, and artists lost to producers, and the country lost to the metropolis. But they fought, and out of that fight came Actors Equity, which to some extent de-Klawed the Syndicate. But the landscape was changed significantly as far as how theatre was done. Resident companies were replaced by tours of entire productions, rotating rep was replaced by long runs.

The financial approach that we consider to be reality -- the belief, for instance, that only metropolises can support the arts -- is based on an ignorance of the historical record. It hasn't been ever thus, and it need not be forever thus, either.

Is it about money? Sure it is. Would more help? Damn straight it would. But if the money is going to flow in the same channels it has always done, then the complaint about Indiana and Georgia has validity. What was important about the WPA during the Depression is that it put artists to work everywhere, not just the big cities in the northeast. If the NEA would make a similar commitment, there might be more support from the Republicans.

I'm not saying Pence and Kingston are arguing from an informed opinion about regional arts. Most likely, they oppose arts spending in general. But until we can frame the debate historically, philosophically, and pragmatically, our arguments will sound like children begging for an increase in their allowance. Artists must be broadly educated, both formally and independently. We must insist on it for the future of the arts.


isaac butler said...

For more on Klaw see this:

and this:


Clearly not a guy you want running your theatre organization

Scott Walters said...

You've put your finger -- or claw -- on it, Isaac!

dennis baker said...

Thanks for the great insight. Much needed. It is something that I wished I was told in my theater history classes.

Cal said...

Sorry to hear that your teachers left out of the American Theatre History curriculum the following book:
Bernheim, Alfred L. The Business of the Theatre: An Economic History of the American Theatre, 1750-1932. New York: Benjamin Blom Inc., 1964. Prepared for The Actor's Equity Association in 1932, this remains a fascinating record of stage economics.

It's in serious research libraries.

Later I'll post more about the topic. I think there's more to it than has been identified so far in this thread.